I’m a big fan (and tireless defender) of writer-director Ti West’s homage to retro-’80s horror, The House of the Devil. The story of a babysitter wandering around a house that serves as homebase for a bunch of devil-worshippers (even the pizza delivery guy is one of them) has a wonderfully devious slow-burn first act filled with wink-wink nods to its decades-ago setting (including a ridiculously self-conscious close-up of our heroine taking a GIANT WALKMAN out of her coat pocket) before everything goes to hell (somewhat literally) in the rush-for-the-finish-line final half hour. It isn’t the most original movie ever made, but West’s unique approach to the material does an excellent job of making familiar ground seem like unexplored (and, certainly, cursed!) territory.
West brings that same clever storytelling style to his second feature, The Innkeepers. While The House of the Devil (which, by the way, is available on Netflix Streaming) may ultimately be the more entertaining film, West’s sophomore effort is definitely the more mature work. Stripped of the gimmicks of any retro setting, The Innkeepers is, at heart, just a good old-fashioned haunted house story, albeit one that benefits greatly from West’s playful sleight-of-hand approach to writing and directing. You never quite know what’s going to happen at any given moment, making The Innkeepers one of the most suspenseful horror films to come out in some time.
The setting is the seemingly idyllic Yankee Pedlar Inn (or, the “Yankee Pedophile,” as one disgruntled employee affectionately refers to it), an independent four-story hotel that’s about to close its doors after being open since 1891. The place is, of course, wrought with myth and legend and the supposed haunting ground of Madeline O’Malley, a woman who hung herself in one of the rooms on her wedding night (and now takes to playing the piano in the first-floor lounge in the middle of the night). The around-the-clock innkeepers during the hotel’s final weekend are Claire (Sara Paxton, even more adorable and dorky than she was in Shark Night 3D) and Luke (Pat Healy, quickly becoming one of indie cinema’s most interesting rogue players), who spend their downtime (of which there is a lot) trying to prove the existence of a paranormal presence via some cheap sound equipment. Soon enough, they start hearing that piano music coming from the lounge.
Like The House of the Devil before it, The Innkeepers unfolds slowly, letting you get comfortable with the two cute protagonists and the often amusing monotony of their jobs as they try to avoid the “annoying girl” who works at the coffee shop next door and frighten one of the hotel’s few guests with ghost stories. Things start to get more interesting when Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis, showing the many years that have passed since Top Gun), a former actress turned “spiritual healer,” checks in, followed soon by an old man (George Riddle) who demands to stay in one particular room, “just for the night.” From there, we follow Claire and Luke as they descend into the basement, where they’re really not supposed to go, and‚ well, you’ll see.
The Innkeepers isn’t going to please every horror fan out there. Its deliberate pacing and Paxton’s somewhat over-the-top Scooby-Doo-ish performance (which I personally found to be a lot of fun) might be a bit off-putting to some, and the rather sudden (and ultra-dark) ending might not be the most satisfying wrap-up in the world. But for others, there are many tricks and treats lurking in its rooms and hallways, waiting patiently to pounce from the shadows. Check it out — or, rather, check in.