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.