Thursday, February 02, 2012

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Innkeepers (2012)


The Innkeepers (2012), the newest horror movie from director Ti West, combines the world view of Kevin Smith's landmark working-class comedy Clerks (1994) with the precise visuals of Stanley Kubrick's glacial, blood-freezing The Shining (1980) and emerges, rather commendably, as a new genre masterpiece. 

West's previous film, House of the Devil (2008) was one of the finest horror films of its year because West slowly, methodically, and determinedly generated an atmosphere of escalating, suffocating tension and anxiety.  He repeats that accomplishment to great effect in The Innkeepers, unexpectedly transforming what could easily be a shaggy dog story into an impressive character piece that reminds the audience of the fact that we're all connected, and that death is inevitable.

Kevin Smith's brilliant freshman film, Clerks, might best be expressed quickly by its funny ad line: "Just because they serve you doesn't mean they like you."   As you no doubt recall, the film involved two convenience store employees, Dante and Randal, who were smart and savvy enough to write their own tickets in the professional world and yet, for some reason, couldn't seem to leave their extended adolescence and low-paying work behind.  The low-budget film remains something of a Generation X touchstone, and one of my favorite films.

That very vibe has been picked up, developed, and updated well in The Innkeepers, particularly in the depiction of the two lead characters: hotel clerks at the soon-to-be-closed Yankee Pedlar Hotel.   Sara Paxton plays Claire, a fetching young woman of admirable intelligence and wit who is nonetheless wasting time at a dead-end job.  She tells a guest in the house she is "between stuff," and that description suits the character and her ennui perfectly.  Claire could indeed write her ticket, if she so chose, but seems to be waiting for something...for a signal, perhaps, that her life should begin in earnest.  Her cohort on the job is laconic, vaguely hostile Luke (Pat Healy), an anti-social geek who spends his spare time looking for ghosts in the hotel, and designing a web site related to paranormal activity.  Luke has a crush on Claire, even though she is a good deal younger, and is also totally uncommitted to the job at hand.

The Innkeepers does a good job of charting the exigencies of life in the Yankee Pedlar Inn. One scene has Claire wrestling a recalcitrant garbage bag, trying to get it inside a dumpster on the street.  The scene might as well serve as a metaphor for life and its inherent frustrations.  At times, we all feel like we're the ones hauling around that messy garbage bag, and not quite getting it where it's supposed to go.

Other scenes explicitly involve Luke's anti-social nature. He's the more distinctly "Randal" component of the duo.  He can't seem to remember to bring his guests their towels, no matter how often he is asked.  And worse, he actively insults the guests, revealing his true contempt for them.

Throughout the film, these two clerks banter, drink, and occasionally search for the ghost of Madeline O'Malley, the spirit believed to be haunting the premises.   Claire relates to the myth of O'Malley more than even she fully understands.  "Imagine how she feels, being stuck here forever?" Claire asks at one point, drawing an explicit comparison between her dead end job and O'Malley's dead-end afterlife. 

What could be worse than spending eternity in the place you died?  Perhaps spending eternity in the low-paying job you absolutely hate...

Soon, an element of the unknown enters the clerks' lives when a new guest, played by Kelly McGillis, stays at the hotel on closing weekend.  She's a dedicated psychic medium, one who believes she can contact the spirit world.  More than that, she informs Claire that there is no present, no past, no future, and that all humans -- throughout time -- share a membrane of connection.  Rather dramatically, this psychic, Leanne, reveals to Claire that there are actually three spirits inhabiting the hotel, not one. 

She also reveals, incidentally,  that Claire should -- at all costs -- stay out of the basement...

Naturally, since this is a horror movie, Claire does finally go down into the basement, and her decision to defy the medium's instructions presents the film it's hair-raising, spellbinding and absolutely scarring climax. 

The last ten minutes of the movie are wholly terrifying, and they actually troubled my slumber the night my wife and I screened the film.  I've heard some people describe the film as boring, but what this comes down to, I suspect, is the kind of horror fan you are.  If you're in it just for the kicks and the gore, The Innkeepers won't be your cup of tea.  It's too deliberate, too precise (like The Shining) to appeal as a visceral thrill-fest.  Oppositely, if you're into the horror genre because you appreciate a slow burn and spine-tingling suspense, I guarantee you won't be disappointed.  This film delivers.

From The Shining and Kubrick, Ti West adopts much of his visual template.  The Innkeepers is dominated by long, slow, quiet shots of empty hallways, dark corridors, and vacant rooms.  West patiently erects a sense of suspense around these still moments so that when the ghosts "appear" (and boy do they appear...), the feeling of shock is palpable.  Also, West breaks up his narrative into separate, almost self-contained  "episodes" (The Long Weekend, Madeline O'Malley and The Final Guest), much in the way Kubrick broke up segments of The Shining to present a sense of routine and boredom; a distinct contrast to the film's final, violent action.


As much as West masters the inner-space of the gloomy, creepy Yankee Pedlar Hotel, he likewise masters the psychology of his lead characters.  Right now, we seem to be on the cusp of another "lost generation," especially given the Great Recession and the slow recovery.   

If you think about it, Clerks really did emerge from an analagous  historical context, only there it was the Recession after the first President Bush, rather than the Recession after the second President Bush.

Accordingly, The Innkeepers plays in the uncomfortable terrain of economic uncertainty: of hotel closings and dead-end jobs that you don't dare quit...because you know there's nothing else out there.   The narrative deals with people who have changed careers (Leanne used to be a TV star), who are losing their jobs (the hotel is closing) and are looking for a second or third act (Luke, with the webs site).  The uncertainty of our times plays well with the uncertainty of the film's text, and you must assume this is exactly what West intended.

Sara Paxton, Paul Healy and Kelly McGillis all do extraordinary jobs of creating quirky, intriguing and most of all, real people in this all-too-familiar context.  Paxton and Healy also share some great chemistry, and their scenes together are alive with wit and humor.  These clerks of The Innkeepers are -- like the immortal Randal and Dante --  two people you feel you already know in your life.

Which, of course, makes their ordeal in the film all the more harrowing, and affecting.  As it should be.

I would like to write much more about The Innkeepers, but I really shouldn't.  The film's conclusion is so intelligently wrought, so perfectly executed, that I don't wish to do the film (or West) the disservice of over-explaining or over-analyzing before many people get to the chance to see the thing.

Suffice it to say that Ti West's The Innkeepers unfolds with a sense of  inevitability that is, simply, mind-blowing.   The Innkeepers is a triumph, one of those rare and wondrous horror movies that you must watch twice just to pick up all the clues, and to see how everything holds together.   This "ghost story for the minimum wage" impressed me on every level, and and makes me look forward to West's next film with tremendous excitement.

9 comments:

  1. Great write up, John!

    West is leagues ahead of most contemporary US horror filmmakers. I love that we, as viewers, can peel away layers and layers of subtext from the misleadingly simple stories. We love his characters because most of us are those characters.

    He has a firm grasp of horror history, and even though his films play as homage to numerous eras, his control of mise-en-scene is distinctive and affective.

    I was thrilled to get a big screen viewing of this film a few weeks ago and was not disappointed. The climax was terrifying.

    My only complaint was that Jeff Grace's score was a little too typical and perhaps a tad overused. I'm a huge fan of his work on other films (House of the Devil, Stake Land), but here the music didn't work quite as well in crafting the atmosphere. That's just my opinion, and it wasn't a distraction. More of a letdown.

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  2. Hi Chris,

    I agree with you about Ti West. "Leagues ahead" is a good way of describing his talent. He seems to be one of the few young directors who understands how to both build up a sense of overwhelming dread, and then follow-through adequately with it, so we leave his films shell-shocked. I become a bigger fan with every West film I see...

    I didn't have a positive or negative response to the score by Jeff Grace, but when I re-watch the film (as I plan to do, many times...) it's something I'll keep an eye (or ear....) on.

    Great comment, my friend.

    best,
    John

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  3. Um, obviously, yay, Clerks.

    That, plus being much much more of a fan of the slow-burn style in lieu of the gallons-of-blood-and-torture fare of recent vintage, this sounds like a no-brainer to check out.

    Given that the dead-ender is its own special brand of hell, taking it to a more literal level is nothing but a fantastic idea.

    Word verification: droid, go, Lance Henriksen, go! Heh.

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  4. Has this already been released in back east? Because out here in California it doesn’t hit theaters until tomorrow. The only problem is that it won’t be playing at my local multiplex, which is lame. Still, I will be seeing The Woman in Black tomorrow. Hopefully it will prove to be a classier kind of horror movie as well. If-and-when The Inkeepers does come out here I’ll make an effort to see it, based partly on your write-up. Thanks.

    p.s. Lookin’ forward to your Poltergeist review. *slime covered tennis ball hits Cannon in the head* What the...?!

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  5. Hi guys!

    Randal: I thought you would appreciate the Clerks connection here...

    I agree with you that the idea of a "dead ender" in a horror film is a really terrific conceit, and I think West has run effectively with it!

    Cannon: Innkeepers opens tomorrow, but I saw it ahead of time on "On Demand," and wanted to feature it here going into the weekend (but without, hopefully, revealing too much...).

    Interesting that Woman in Black and Innkeepers are both, apparently, eschewing guts and gore for the more traditional "slow burn" and suspense mode of horror. Very interesting...

    Poltergeist -- one of my favorite fims -- tomorrow!

    This blog is clean! :)

    best,
    John

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  6. Thanks for the review. Now I'm really excited! I love "quiet horror" stories and this looks like a doozy. I'll take a good case of the shivers over roller-coaster jump scares any day.

    I'm hoping to see this one and The Woman in Black tomorrow.

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  7. THE INNKEEPERS continues the trend of wildly overrating the talent of Ti West. He continues to improve with each film (HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is good up until its shift into "Rosemary's Baby" territory), but neither it, nor INNKEEPERS is anywhere NEAR the level of GREAT -- "Slow-burn" is NOT the same as "comatose", something that has obviously been lost on a lot of people... understandably so; considering the level of horror film now, the half-assed horror film IS king - but half-assed is STILL half-assed.

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  8. Hi Count Zero and L. Rob


    Count Zero: Let me know how you like both films. I'm eager also to see Woman in Black. I think it'll have a tough time topping Innkeepers, however. Part of what makes West's film succeed is the connection he builds between the audience and the two lead characters. It's been a long time since I felt so invested in characters in a horror movie, and absolutely dreaded the prospect of losing one or both of them.


    Hi LRon,

    Nice to see you again!

    I do want to assure you, I'm not in the habit of overrating or underrating anybody, let alone Ti West. I have no horse in that race (meaning how he is perceived by others).

    I can only state that I was blown away by both House of the Devil and The Innkeepers.

    I admire West as a filmmaker based on how I perceive his work, and hopefully I've laid out why in my reviews of those films. It's not just that he builds to a crescendo with suspense, it's that he's got a fine handle on characterization too.

    I realize some people seem to think the Innkeepers is boring. I don't get that criticism, myself.. I was riveted, because I was watching two very interesting characters in a great story. I don't understand what makes the Innkeepers "half-assed" or "comatose."

    Of course, you're 100% entitled to your own opinion about the film, too and I respect your viewpoint. I just don't happen to see it in regards to the two films under discussion.

    Great comments, and my best to you both!

    John

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  9. Well, I didn't get to see The Innkeepers like I'd hoped (why isn't this movie playing in Dallas?????), but did get to see The Woman in Black.

    A few observations on Woman in Black:

    1) It's nowhere remotely near as good as the original BBC TV movie, which did infinitely more with infinitely less. More proof (as if any was needed) that money can't buy you scares.

    2) Making the audience jump with sudden loud noises on the soundtrack is fun once. Two's pushing it. Ten times is naked desperation.

    3) I still don't know whether Daniel Radcliffe can act outside of the Harry Potter series. He's given nothing to do here except wander from one set-piece to the next with a glum expression, barely reacting to anything. His character has no life at all. He's practically catatonic.

    4) Fantastic set design and location atmosphere. Too bad the filmmakers didn't trust it more and felt the need to ladle on the shock-scares.

    5) Hauntings for Dummies: Another remake that takes a wonderfully simple and chilling premise and ruins it with totally unnecessary plot emroidery and ornamentation. The more you explain, explain, explain, the less creepy it all becomes.

    Ah, well. At least it's not as bad as Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.

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