Horror director Ti West is known for employing a persistent, slow-burning tension in his films, which I admire in principle, but in practice it hasn’t always worked out. His last feature, House of the Devil, was defined by tension built around what we knew and the protagonist didn’t: her babysitting clients were extremely unsavory characters. How it would end was unclear, but there was no question that she would be subjected to a harrowing ordeal before it did, and the bulk of the film’s runtime was devoted to depicting the lonely mundanities of babysitting subtly injected with the suspense of the ordeal that was to come. It was a commendably sophisticated approach, but it was defeated by its own excess of patience; the suspense lapsed into boredom, and when the payoff finally arrived, it did so with a thud.
The Innkeepers has similar elements but a different approach. The two remaining employees of a quaint New England inn have almost nothing to do in the final days before it goes out of business, so they spend their evenings hunting for evidence to support the inn’s haunted legend. While we’re made to endure the titular innkeepers’ tedium just as we were with House of the Devil’s babysitter, this time we don’t know what’s in store for them. This would be an unbearable prospect if The Innkeepers made as pervasive use of the same slow-burn suspense tactics its predecessor did, but luckily it is better paced and more generous with the scares, which are made all the more effective by being applied to a well-formed character that’s worth investing in.
We don’t actually know that much about the heroine, Claire (Sara Paxton), but neither does she: she is in her early twenties, has a boring job in a boring town, and has no idea what she wants to do with her life. Still, she has an endearingly plucky optimism and is intrigued by her coworker Luke’s (Pat Healy) DIY paranormal investigations, an interest stoked further by a guest at the inn (Kelly McGillis) who claims to have psychic powers. So when Claire starts having ghostly encounters, are they real, or are they the product of the overactive imagination of a young woman who desperately wants her ennui disrupted?
West does a good job of keeping that question open, giving the viewer just as much doubt as reason to believe. And while this is essentially an old-fashioned ghost story, the fear it mines from familiar territory still manages to be fresh and very effective. A number of things contribute: a great location (Torrington, CT’s Yankee Pedlar Inn), deliberate cinematography, smart editing, and a score with just the right amount of restraint. But a lot of the credit goes to Paxton, who gives what might have been a very limited character real depth, and makes her remarkably sympathetic. By the time the terrifying climax arrived, I didn’t want to blink. It’s been years since I’ve been made to care this much about a character in a horror film.
After several years of films that were bold but nevertheless fell short of his obvious talent, I’m glad Ti West has finally arrived with The Innkeepers, and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next.