Friday, October 26, 2012

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #10: The Innkeepers

I reviewed Ti West’s ‘House of the Devil’ as part of last year’s Summer of Satan retrospective and it was a real find. West respected his audience’s intelligence, respected his heroine’s plight (Joceline Donahue’s performance was spot-on and her character never corralled into being a mere scream queen), and built tension through atmosphere and character rather than relying on cheap scares or torture porn nastiness. 

Featuring a Ti West movie as part of this year’s 13 for Halloween was a done deal!

‘The Innkeepers’ consolidates much of what made ‘House of the Devil’ a success: an empathetic heroine who is recognisably human with all the confusion and vulnerability anyone would display if confronted by the unexplained or horrific; a slow-burn approach to narrative that suggests and unnerves rather than lambasting with exposition or playing the horror card too early; and a clearly defined location that anchors the movie and defines its atmosphere so effectively that its architectural presence is almost a character in its own right.

In ‘House of the Devil’, it was the kind of gothic-styled house that wouldn’t look out of place in Amityville or Haddonfield. In ‘The Innkeepers’, it’s the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a hotel on the verge of closing down. The owner is in Barbados and not really concerned about business – or the lack during – during its final weekend as a going concern. Staff is down to two junior employees – Claire (a never-better Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) – the rooms on the top floor have been stripped and closed off, and the only remaining guests are actress-cum-medium Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), Gayle (Alison Barlett), a brittle and recently estranged woman with her young son in tow, and an unnamed old man (George Riddle) who checks in demanding the third floor suite where he spent his honeymoon.

The events that happen to, and around, this small cluster of people have their beginning and their end in the story of Madeleine O’Malley (Brenda Cooney), the betrayed bride whose spirit is said to haunt the establishment. Luke buys into the legend, spending his time building a Yankee Pedlar website and filming and recording various areas of the inn, determined to capture some supernatural activity on tape. Claire, though sceptical, assists him. Yet it’s Claire who becomes attuned to the first hints that the past is coming back to haunt the place.

West does two very canny things with ‘The Innkeepers’. Firstly, he lets the Yankee Pedlar grow on you (and gradually begin to creep you out) at the same rate that it does the protagonists. He lets you discover things about the inn – and about Madeleine – at the same time that Claire and Luke discover them. In a genre where filmmakers often rush to play their hand, almost desperate to telegraph to the audience that the protagonists are in peril, West understands the virtue of patience. Accordingly, there is a pacing and elegance to his work absent from most contemporary cinema. ‘The Innkeepers’, with its haunted hotel imbued with the shadows of the past, has the ingredients of a classic ghost story and that’s what West lets it be.

Secondly – pace – my use of the description “haunted hotel”, West has the infinite wisdom not to try to walk in the footprints of ‘The Shining’. It would have been so easy, and so disastrous, to set up the Yankee Pedlar as a kind of Overlook Jnr. West sidesteps this potential pitfall with all the elegance that he demonstrates elsewhere.

And if all this talk of elegance and classicism suggests that ‘The Innkeepers’ is more redolent of the old BBC ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ adaptations than American horror cinema’s most exciting young practitioner, then send for the bellhop and have him take your worries away. When it needs to be, ‘The Innkeepers’ is genuinely creepy. And what it comes time for the big nasty scares at the end, West conjures a claustrophobic and downbeat finale.

There is very little wrong with this film – the for-the-sake-of-it final shot is a minor annoyance – and once again West demonstrates an excellent facility with actors (across the board, the performances are note-perfect) and conjures an incredibly handsomely mounted production on a limited budget. With his contributions to anthology films ‘V/H/S’ and ‘The ABCs of Death’ well received, and ‘The Sacrament’ and ‘The Side Effect’ in pre-production, West is a talented guy who’s doing consistently good work – that he’s barely into his thirties bodes well, hopefully, for more great genre movies in years to come.

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