Ti West helms a new indie horror film that fizzles rather than frightens. Premiering at Austin’s popular SXSW Film Festival, The Innkeepers disappointed with an extraordinarily long build-up with little payoff. Despite having high hopes for this one, I was ultimately let down.
The Yankee Pedlar is about to close. Even the fact that it’s supposedly haunted isn’t enough to save the near-deserted inn from going under. While the owner is away vacationing, two over-worked clerks have to babysit the hotel during its last days of business. Enter Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), two youngish under-achievers stuck on duty and determined to find proof that the hotel is haunted. Luke, an uber-geek who watches internet porn, has thrown up a website about the hotel, just waiting to be filled with actual film or audio footage of ghostly occurrences. Claire is an innocent young’en with the best intentions. If the hotel is being haunted by a murdered bride, she wants to know why and get the proof.
The hotel has only two rooms occupied, plus Claire and Luke who are staying there. After the arrival of a strange old man, eerie things start happening. First Claire picks up the sound of piano music on her EVP recorder, then one of the guests (who calls herself a “healer” and a psychic) says there’s something bad about the basement and warns Claire not to go down there. But Claire is a determined young lady, if not quite fearless, and she will follow the clues where they lead her.
The problem with the film is that the extremely slow build-up doesn’t have a pay-off big enough to make the first hour and a half of boredom worth it. It plods along; hello Claire, hello Luke, hello guests, hello coffee girl. Nothing happened for at least an hour into the movie. Even after she begins combing the halls of the hotel with her equipment trying to pick up sounds, it still plods along for about another 20 minutes with nothing super scary going on. It does begin to build the creepiness at this point, but the comedic overtones ruin what might have been a building eerie atmosphere. Then, towards the very end, there’s a flurry of frights and the film crescendos. It’s almost like it jumps awake from a nightmare. Suddenly the audience is treated to harsh loud music/sound effects, scary images, Claire finally under some kind of true menace, and then an ambiguous ending that doesn’t feel satisfying.
What I did like about the film is the Nancy Drew-esque feel to Claire’s character and the story itself. It builds itself up like a spooky mystery, with young and innocent Claire setting out to solve the mystery of the Yankee Pedlar haunting. Like Nancy Drew she takes her flashlight, dauntless, and goes exploring even to the shadiest corners of the hotel and basement.
She’s likeable, if quirky, and it’s refreshing to see an eager sweet girl playing the lead role. Luke’s character felt more superfluous, as did most of the other characters West threw into the film mix. The “healer”, who is played by Kelly McGillis, and besides some ominous warnings her character is completely unnecessary.
The comic elements were light and not that funny. The jokes fell a little flat, and the dynamic between Claire and Luke felt awkward. With the slow build up (and saying build-up is misleading), the movie hits you with an abrupt ending that isn’t worth the wait (and some might say, the wasted time).
West made a name for himself with House of the Devil. While it earned average reviews, critics complained about the slowness of that film, how it dragged and how the ending disappointed. While he built some great atmosphere, and made a film that felt vintage, it seems the plodding story and pacing wasn’t just a one-time deal with House of the Devil. Rather, West’s style seems to tend toward this slow story-telling process that may leave audiences bored and wanting more. As the writer/director of The Innkeepers, West was allowed to indulge in the aesthetic, to the detriment of the film.