Ti West The Innkeepers
Introduction/review for The Cutting Room, Episode 20
By Joseph Christiana

One of the paranormal enthusiasts in Ti West’s 2011 film of THE INNKEEPERS explains to his
partner that pessimism is actually a higher form of optimism because if you don’t have such
high expectations, you’re apt to be pleasantly surprised when something good comes along.

Though I think there’s truth in the sentiment—I’ve explained more or less the same thing to my
wife on occasion—it also contains a kind of perversion, and it belies an all too familiar cynicism.

If the musing is considered more carefully we see that Luke, the professing character here,
played by Pat Healy, is so cynical that he doesn’t even believe his own pessimism. And this is
a characteristic, I believe, shared by the genre-savvy modern horror audiences whom Ti West
is aiming to reach. Us.

It’d be a mistake to think that by getting us to think about Expectation, the major theme of the
film, that West is somehow ironically suggesting that we should lower our expectations for the
tale that follows. Instead, to the contrary, I think he’s throwing down the gauntlet, challenging
us to consider his film more carefully and to assess what our expectations are for horror
pictures. To put a fine point on it: we expect certain things out of haunted house movies. And
West will toy with those expectations, first by prolonging tension and dread, and then by
ending the film in a way that, well, we just don't expect.

The plot is strikingly and effectively simple. With the owner of the historic Yankee Pedlar Inn on
vacation during its final weekend in existence, Luke and Claire are charged with the duties of
keeping the place running. Mostly this entails killing time. And since both of the innkeepers are
devotees of all things paranormal, they take this last opportunity to investigate and seek out
the supernatural presence of Madeleine O’Malley, a woman who purportedly met a tragic end
in the hotel decades before and is said to be haunting the building still.

While the pair uses abstrusely-technological equipment to get EVP audio recordings of their
apparition to prove its existence, they come into contact with a succession of dubious
characters: a new agey meta-physicist played by Kelly McGillis, an embittered mother, and a
half-dead geezer intent on staying in a specific room for sentimental reasons.

But the most dubious character of all is the inn itself. It’s the kind of place that has a charm that’
s almost extinct in this age of Holiday Inn Expresses and digital swipe keycards. The Yankee
Peddlar is a place where you feel the souls who inhabited it in its heyday. The place is like the
carcass of a woman whose perfume lingers in her hair. I asked myself during the atmospheric,
languorous shots of the corridors and rooms: Where do souls go in this age after the death of
god? The haunted house sub-genre offers this: when the body is no longer able to contain the
soul, it is then housed by the architectural structures that once contained the body. To think
that we the living can co-inhabit these structures with the dead is the stuff of nightmares.

Claire, played by Sara Paxton is the counter-point to Luke’s cynicism and she wanders these
rooms like we wander in dreams just before they turn to nightmares. Her face conveys the
doughy-eyed innocence of the faithful fully expecting to come in contact with the ghost of O’
Malley…. but wholly unprepared for it when it comes.

West knows that we're expecting something terrible and he toys with our anticipation, making
great sport of building and prolonging the tension. Indeed, he understands the Val Lewton
effect, that the thought of impending horror is more terrifying than looking at it dead in the eye.

And as an exercise in the perpetuation of dread, there’s a lot of setting up and hinting at
things to come in the plotting. These sorts of mechanical intimations are standard fare in the
sub-genre and they always culminate in closing scenes with expensive set-piece payoffs, a
grand twist or a subversion of perspective. We expect anticipate the twist and in these times of
deep-seated genre cynicism, these "surprising" payoffs are increasingly unsatisfying. So West
seems to be asking us is this: what if the twist of a movie was a lack thereof? And what does
that mean for the genre and our expectations of it?

The film isn’t without its flaws. For instance, there are a few moments of implausible motivation
and there are a few hit-you-over-the-head lines of exposition. But it's well worth the
consideration of not only die-hard horror fans, but wider audiences as well. It’s refreshing to
see an up and coming director mining the genre for true psychological suspense and dread in
lieu of the paint by numbers schlock revulsion used to garner attention by lesser filmmakers.

And, without being ironic, I expect good things to continue to come from West.

This review can be heard on
Episode 20.
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