Ti West's The Innkeepers is a taut and polished haunted hotel film with a lot of genuine laughs and surprising depth. I really feel that West is one of the most interesting horror directors working today. His The Roost still holds up after six years, I believe that what little worked in Cabin Fever 2 was entirely due to West, and The House of the Devil is a film that transcends its own jump-scares. I've watched House several times and I know when the scares are coming, but it's the elegant atmosphere and substantive visuals that make that film work.
The Innkeepers has some qualities in common with House of the Devil, but it's a film that gives more weight to the characters and dialogue of the story. Luke and Claire are working at the tacky Victorian-style Yankee Pedlar Inn for its final weekend before it shuts down. Luke, despite the fact that he doesn't believe in ghosts, has started a website to document the strange occurrences they've seen and heard around the hotel; Claire is on a mission to help him find evidence of the rumored haunting by a suicidal, jilted fiancée before the doors close forever on the Yankee Pedlar. The two share the kind of authentic yet shallow affinity of work friends. They enjoy these little traditions and exist easily in the small universe of the Yankee Pedlar, its guests and neighboring businesses.
Claire (Sara Paxton) is the hero of the film. She's a slight, optimistic, charming young woman who dropped out of college and only feels guilty for her lack of direction when it's pointed out by Leanne Rease-Jones, her favorite former actress turned psychic who is staying at the hotel (Kelly McGillis in a wonderful role). Claire rather enjoys her crummy job at the Yankee Pedlar; she likes being invited to join in Luke's ghost-hunting. Paxton gives a lovely, bright performance, crinkling her nose and hiking her shoulders, shoving her hands in her hoodie pockets and wandering around the hotel looking for company or someone to give her something to do. Claire's a bit of a ghost herself, haunting the Yankee Pedlar, drifting in and out of corridors, letting herself into occupied guest rooms with very few qualms. She's a person with presence and character who is entirely unable to recognize that within herself. She drifts and floats, but when the dead guests of the Yankee Pedlar Inn begin to make themselves known in treacherous ways, she shows a lot of substance and interesting courage.
Luke (Pat Healy) is her dry, dispassionate nerd of a coworker. He pulls off many of the most comedic moments of the film (although one bit of physical business involving Claire's attempts to wield a heavy, leaking trash bag into an uncooperative dumpster is pure Paxton genius), and he's also likable in that snarky way of nerds who know that they're smarter than you. West could have easily created a dynamic of the pitiful nerd mooning over the oblivious cute girl, and while there are hints of that throughout the film, it mostly seems that Claire's trying to get Luke's attention because she admires his strength and direction. At one point after Leanne disdains her for having no greater ambition than working in a hotel, Claire starts to confide in Luke about her dismay with the weighty expectations of everyone around her. He cuts her off and tells her he's exhausted, and he'll listen to the woes of her impending quarter life crisis after his nap. Claire looks stricken and yeah, Luke's kind of a dick, but I've worked in that relationship before. I guarantee you that Luke's heard Claire's fears and complaints a dozen times already, because that's what friendly co-workers do on a slow night in an empty hotel. I imagine it's pretty close to the worn and familiar conversations I've had on slow days in an empty office. Sometimes you just don't have the energy to hear it all over again.
The first half of the film exists entirely in this relationship between Claire and Luke and their respective relationships to the hotel. They never discuss it, but they seem to each feel an unlikely ennui about the closing of the quirky, pain-in-the-ass hotel where they've both spent so much of their time. They joke with each other and we laugh (we laugh a lot--The Innkeepers is a very funny film), they snipe at each other and we nod our heads in understanding recollection. They screw with the insufferable guests and we mentally high-five them. West sets up their exchanges in a way that is deeply familiar. I've been Luke. I've been Claire. Depending on the dynamic of my relationship with a random 9-to-5 friend, I'm sometimes the irritatingly optimistic co-worker, and I'm sometimes the irritably cynical co-worker. Once the scares begin to mount--and boy, do they--and the well-being of both Luke and Claire is called into question, I'm already legitimately concerned because I know these people. I've been these people. That's what makes the scares in The Innkeepers work harder and stronger than in The House of the Devil, a film that boasts more terrifying visuals and grue. I really like Luke and Claire. I don't want them to die!
West segments the film into four chapter breaks complete with scallop-edged cards announcing each chapter's title. It's a quaint touch that's suited well by the ugly wallpaper and lacy duvets of the Yankee Pedlar Inn. As always in a West film, the details are rich and fulfilling, fleshing out the universe in which you will live for the next hundred minutes. Claire's navy Keds are worn at the tips, a tiny rip forming where her big toe strains against the canvas. I don't know why, but I liked that touch. Along with the over-sharing barista next door and Luke's lame GeoCities website with the ghostly gifs, these details add very little to the plot but quite a lot to the movie.
West's eye for the technical aspects of a film is always pretty unerring. Like The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers is a very well-shot film, beautifully paced, cleverly edited and with thoughtful sound design. West talked a little about the score and sound design during the Fantastic Fest Q&A for the film: his sound designer Graham Reznick, who has worked on all of West's films, spent a tremendous amount of time cultivating the EMP noises that Claire and Luke pick up during their amateur ghost-facing. Along with the elegant score, the sound design adds so much to this movie. It really works. The man knows how to create and sustain an atmosphere. I think that's Ti West's true gift, but unlike some other great atmosphere-creators, he can back it up with story and action.
West mentioned in my pre-Fantastic Fest interview with him that he and the crew of The House of the Devil stayed at the Yankee Pedlar Inn during the shooting of that movie. It's a real hotel in Torrington, Connecticut--the most brilliantly twisted set designer in the world couldn't invent that decor, with the 70s interior design clashing with the Victorian architecture. He mentioned during the Q&A a few vaguely creepy things that happened at the supposedly haunted hotel during their stay, but what he said that most struck me is that he himself is a skeptic. Considering that West's movies seem to most often involve supernatural phenomena punishing skeptics caught unawares, I hope he watches his back.