Ti West cements his rep as one of America's best genre directors with this superb lower-middle class horror yarn.
Consider horror movies as an explosive device. They begin. The touchpaper is lit. There’s an initial fizz, which dies down almost instantly. The nervous spectators, perched at a safe distance behind tape and barriers, observe in expectant dismay as the spark inches ever closer to the payload. It’s the job of the filmmaker to calculate the variables: how long is the fuse? How bright is the spark? And, perhaps most crucially, how big is the eventual explosion?
Director Ti West has, over the course of five feature films, engineered a way to make that spark almost invisible to the human eye. That is to say, if you didn’t approach his oeuvre knowing that he was predominantly a horror director, it probably wouldn’t be instantly perceptible.
West’s abrasive 2007 indie shocker, Trigger Man, initially evokes the unnerving minimalist existentia of Kelly Reichardt, or Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, rather than the surging survival horror into which it – eventually, bloodily – mutates. The House of the Devil, the exceptional 2009 film that launched West as the acceptable face of alternative, cine-literate horror, played a similar game – suggesting the presence of evil lurking behind the walls rather than indicating any explicit terror.
The Innkeepers is his latest offering, and arguably his masterpiece. The pleasures of this talky throwback chiller don’t derive from its leisurely pacing or the pair of beautifully nuanced performances at its centre, but the feeling that with each subsequent film, West is honing, distilling, purifying the essence of his craft.
There is no clutter in a Ti West film, and his concessions to genre are muted at best. His films have more in common with the patented ‘Cinema of Dread’ dispensed by directors like Michael Haneke, Stanley Kubrick or David Lynch. In that light, one might see The Innkeepers as West’s Twin Peaks. So rich are its characters and the history it forges that you feel this could have worked as a full-blown TV series.
Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) man the desk at the soon-to-be-closed Yankee Pedlar Inn, a mom-‘n’-pop guesthouse located in an eerily tranquil Connecticut suburb. Despite the cheery community vibe, the inn also boasts a colourful history as the location of a grisly murder. The victim was one Madeline O’Malley, a jilted bride who is still said to haunt the Pedlar’s corridors, stairwells and atriums.
There’s a lot of chatter in The Innkeepers, but banal though it may initially appear, it’s an essential component of West’s devious MO. Claire is not your classic empathetic scream queen who casually spouts an inventory of her hopes and dreams. There’s the sense that she’s lost, that when her inevitable redundancy arrives, she will drift into boredom and depression. She has trouble connecting to her peers, as seen in an amusing early scene involving a forced conversation with a self-involved coffee barista (Lena Dunham: who else?). The fact that she displays a blind faith in her ability to ghost hunt is possibly the most heartbreaking detail of them all.
Paxton, an actress who has mainly been involved in TV and MOR schlock, captures these fine shades in an astonishing central performance. As the current guest list is minuscule, Claire and Luke decide to while away their final working hours goofily searching for evidence of the supernatural. With the aid of a UHF receiver and a tape recorder, the name of the game is to sit and wait for the ghosts to make their presence known. The cunning sound design plugs us in to Claire’s headphones as she listens out for spooks – the faint tinkling of piano keys through a mist of static is a technical masterstroke.
Eighties icon Kelly McGillis checks in, playing a fading actress who happened to star in one of Claire’s favourite TV shows. A mysterious older man, too, arrives insisting he stay in a room that’s now used as a laundry cupboard. Both, it transpires, are harbingers of doom: she boasts telekinetic powers and tells of horrific future machinations, while he is just plain peculiar in the best traditions of the genre.
As a narrative framework, The Innkeepers could not be more uncomplicated. It’s the lucid and reasoned manner in which West presents this material that imbues it with delicate gravitas. Camera pyrotechnics are kept to a minimum, with the occasional exception of a swooping reaction shot. The old-fashioned orchestral soundtrack subtly cuts through the realist setting, while the creepy bumps and knocks are deployed with immense precision.
But while West’s formidable formal restraint extracts sweet terror from such quotidian activities as walking through rooms, opening doors, peering around corners and just being alone, the great strength of The Innkeepers is that it works just as hard as straight drama. There’s never a single moment where you feel the actors are spouting exposition or making a decision that haphazardly sets off some preordained order of wacky events. It’s the precise, mutually beneficial symbiosis between naturalism and fantasy that makes the film work as well as it does.
Beyond the in-the-moment experience of watching The Innkeepers, it also operates as a film about being a young adult in a world (or, more specifically, an America) where employment opportunities are thin on the ground, where existence is hardscrabble and where local landscapes are in a constant state of physical flux. Rich local history is callously flattened by bulldozers as the inexorable homogenisation and commercialisation of towns and cities lays the independent and culturally curious/alternative to waste.
West’s films could almost be seen as defying this notion; they are assiduously sculpted monoliths that remind us of a time when horror cinema was more than just colliding tsunamis of screaming, pus and tits. The ending of The Innkeepers is the only thing that disappoints, as you sense that West is far more interested in the dynamics, the build-up, the moments that send pulses racing, than he is in concocting explanations. The ideal Ti West film would simply never end.
Ti West follows up the career-making The House of the Devil.
This is horror cinema expertly stripped back to its very core.
The ending is a tad too sudden, but the build-up is the work of a master filmmaker.