In honor of Easter I’ll write about a horror film.
It’s really difficult to pan Ti West’s latest film The Innkeepers, and not because the film is particularly good. Though it has its moments, and though West does manage to retain a few of the shining elements of his excellent The House of the Devil, the film falls victim to its two-dimensional characterizations and horror clichés quickly. No, why the negative review is difficult is because of West’s independent pedigree and allegiance. Here’s a guy who, by many accounts, has been offered bigger budgets to fall into the Hollywood recyclable line of sequels and remakes, but who has time and again refused in order to make original works free from studio interference. It’s this kind of underdog story of originality that is refreshing and encouraging, and The House of the Devil’s success made the indie crowds cheers for West’s anti-establishment attitude a little louder. Those cheers may quickly turn to polite smiles and golf claps after The Innkeepers is finished its current run.
Apathetic 20-somethings Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) work the front desk at the Yankee Pedlar Inn. The establishment is set to shut down in a week. Its three floors are virtually empty, save for the lone wife and son trying to escape an abusive husband, and the alcoholic actor-turned-medium, Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGinnis). To pass the time, and to fuel traffic on a cheesy website, Claire and Luke set out ghost-hunting for the spirit of Madeline O’Malley, a woman who was supposedly killed on the grounds and who still haunts the guests. Their aimless game takes a serious turn as strange events and stranger guests start to show up.
Where The House of the Devil succeeded in its insistence on bumps in the night, an excruciatingly slow build-up, and a tone that was more serious than tongue-in-cheek, The Innkeepers fails. West and sound designer Graham Reznick do concoct some eerie sound perspective moments as Claire and Luke creep from floor to floor wearing headphones and holding a microphone, but a tinkling piano and vaguely wailing woman can only maintain suspense for so long. The thinly sketched – and for the most part, poorly acted – characters don’t help things. Paxton’s Claire spends much of the film mumbling to herself and riding an underdeveloped line between clumsy comic, brave explorer and histrionic screamer. Healy’s Luke alternates between possible red herring and hopeless romantic where neither character track is fulfilled in any satisfying way.
When Scream so successfully mocked horror conventions back in 1996 it was a jolt to the genre and encouragement to its directors and writers to bring a certain kind of logic back into the form. These are all joking mantras now: ‘Don’t go into the basement,’ ‘Don’t say ‘I’ll be right back,’’ Don’t separate from the group.’ The problem with The Innkeepers is not only that it falls into each of the aforementioned traps, but also that there are easy and obvious ways to avoid them, which West (who both wrote and directed) either fails to see or refuses to utilize. The result is such a limited, painfully transparent scope, that Claire’s fate is telegraphed long before it occurs onscreen.
The beginning of the film sets itself up as the anti-Paranormal Activity. Luke shows Claire a video on his computer. It’s of an empty room. She puts headphones on and leans close to the screen while he watches her gleefully in the background. If you’ve ever seen one of these Internet videos, popular in the early 2000s, you know what’s to come. Claire’s nose is almost touching the screen, and West cuts into a close-up, so we are seeing exactly what she is. When the figure appears out of nowhere screaming, we jump the same way she does.
This introduction functions in two ways. First, it’s a moment of cathartic horror. Nothing bad really happens. We’re able to laugh at Claire and ourselves after the fact. Second, it’s West’s example of the type of horror that The Innkeepers is not. He’s showing us what he considers ineffective horror tactics, and saying that what we’re about to see is something else entirely. This idea is reinforced by the last shot of the film, which mimics, outside of a computer screen, the opening, and where everything that falls in between relies more on creeping perspectives and creaking sounds than scary figures popping out of shadows.
Counter to the overwhelming slew of first person, video-induced narratives (think of the recent The Last Exorcism), West attempts to comment on the state of horror: here’s what horror should not be (the computer shot). Here’s what horror should be (The Innkeepers). The problem is that neither is scary and both are cliché-ridden. He’s moved from one poor form to the next; replaced cheap modern horror with cheap past horror.
A random note: this is one of the promotional images from The Innkeepers:
This is awesome. Great graphic design that manages to fit a ton of the narrative into one panel. I love the ghost lurking in the background and the color scheme – blue/green for the supernatural, yellow for the real world – is a nice contrast.