I had another look at director Ti West’s The House of the Devil after my viewing of The Innkeepers. It confirmed his thoughtful approach and helped explain why his films are so distinctive. Both of them explore more old fashioned notions of horror. Both emphasize atmosphere and location over buckets of gore. Both spend a lot of time with their central characters before the fireworks start: flirting with boredom in order to get inside the heroes’ skin rather than treating them like clay pigeons. And both mine extremely effective results on a very small budget, like a carnival haunted house absent the clichés. West thus creates a distinct auteurial stamp for his work, setting them apart from run-of-the-mill chillers in every way.
The Innkeepers lacks the overt 80s throwback nature that made The House of the Devil such a hoot. Instead, it positions itself for the post-Ghost Hunters era, and the search for proof of the otherworldly that drives such reality programming. We find ourselves at the venerable Yankee Pedlar Inn, which has seen its share of spooky happenings in the long years of its existence (most notably a ghostly bride who died under horrid circumstances). But now its glory days are long behind it and after one final weekend, it will shut its doors for good. The last two employees – tech nerd Luke (Pat Healy) and easygoing Claire (Sara Paxton) – have to keep themselves amused through a long night at the front desk. In an effort to occupy themselves, they gravitate towards the resident ghost… and in the process get more than they bargained for.
West remains keenly aware of that other haunted hotel story – the one penned by Stephen King – and does his utmost to avoid stepping on its toes. The basic set-up is similar – a few people in a building too large for them and a tragic past that comes oozing through the walls – but the youthful wastrels here are distinctly different from the disintegrating Torrance family. The ghosts arise for different purposes as well, and even the convenient psychic guest (a delightfully surly Kelly McGillis) approaches the haunting from a fresh direction.
The build-up takes its sweet time, as the two clerks monkey around with recording equipment in an effort to make definitive contact with the ghost. Both are too smart for their jobs, and both are young enough to assume that something better will come along… though neither possesses the wherewithal to look. Their restlessness informs the first two acts, as Claire goes from passively interested to borderline obsessed. The film carries its share of surprises, but doles them out carefully: just enough to keep us actively engaged. Paxton helps a great deal, with a spunky charm that’s hard to dislike and a curiosity-killed-the-cat sensitivity that pulls us in along with her. She establishes a solid dynamic with McGillis’s prickly guest and Healy’s fellow desk clerk, whose cynical proclamations masks an awkward attraction to her. All of those details combine to create a strong sense of reality… matched by the fact that the film was entirely shot in a real-life Yankee Pedlar Inn. (It’s in Torrington, CT.)
The push towards the finale lacks the breathlessness we expect from modern horror films, and some may grow antsy waiting for the money shots to start. That’s part of the point. The film’s recurring scares keep us focused and the payoff handsomely rewards those willing to take the journey. It retains an eerie elegance in the last few minutes: not as arbitrary as the traditional horror twist, but duly earned by the slow development that precedes it. Its return to traditional genre tropes is quite welcome after the gore-or-nothing extremes of contemporary horror. With films as good The Innkeepers under his belt, West has become one of those signature voices reminding us what this genre is supposed look like.