Whereas most of the recent American horror production has been geared towards "torture porn" or gory shockers, there are still a few directors working who prefer to follow character and mood-based tried-and-true tropes. One of the most acclaimed young directors working in the genre, Ti West follows precisely on that path with his fifth feature, The Innkeepers. It's essentially a classic haunted house story updated for the "millennial" generation: two characters, a concentrated span of time (one weekend), one set and one overarching concept. The inn of the title is the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a small-town hotel with an allegedly bloody history, about to close down permanently; the "innkeepers" are the two remaining employees over its final weekend open, attempting to uncover the truth about the alleged haunting of the place.

     The first sign that Mr. West has something else on his mind is that these are not your average disposable horror-film characters, even if that is the underlying scaffolding: Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are on-screen for nearly the entire length of the film, so we get to know them much more intimately than is usual, and they're not necessarily the nicest folk around. Luke is the proverbial techno-nerd playing up a cool factor that he may not have and seeking to parlay the inn's haunted status into internet fame, Claire is an over-eager, under-achieving girl who may believe in the supernatural status more than Luke does; both are portrayed as not nearly mature enough for their jobs, as their interactions with the rare guests suggest, reminding of Kevin Smith's Clerks. The clearest example is has-been TV star Leane (Kelly McGillis), who reinvented herself as a psychic and is the focus of Claire's initial awe and of Luke's skeptical zingers. That is, both are perfectly credible both as contemporary characters and as the kind of people who would find work at an empty, closing old hotel.

     On top of this, Mr. West layers a well-mastered study in eerie atmospherics that reminds (deliberately?) of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, both in the way DP Eliot Rockett's camera roves and frames the hotel's corridors, and in the disquieting mood he builds out of seemingly normal places and situations. That the ending - the only segment of the film where actual blood is visible, briefly - also suggests an unexplained, inexplainable presence in the premises is yet another connecting thread to Mr. Kubrick's precise, geometric story.

     For all that, though, there is a sense that Mr. West bumps up against a script that is too long on foreplay and mood and far too short in actual heft. The payoff, while satisfying within the film's logic, does fall short of the promises contained in the director's excellent formal control and attention to performances, and even in the narrative structuring in "chapters" and an "epilogue"; a case of too much foreplay and not enough fulfillment. But it's easy to see why Mr. West, who also scripted and edited, remains a talent to follow closely.

Cast: Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis
Director, writer and editor: Ti West
Cinematography: Eliot Rockett (colour, widescreen)
Music: Jeff Grace
Designer: Jade Healy
Costumes: Elisabeth Vastola
Producers: Derek Curl, Larry Fessenden, Mr. West, Peter Phok (Dark Sky Films, Glass Eye Pix)
USA, 2011, 101 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, July 27th 2013


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