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The Innkeepers (Ti West, 2011)

August 24, 2012

Everybody knows how most horror films work: the first twenty minutes or more are dedicated to present the characters, show their strengths and weaknesses, which will probably come up later in the movie. Unfortunately, most of the times, we don’t get characters, but stereotypes, so we are bound to watch the usual parade of teens getting high and fucking etcera etcera until they are massacred for our pleasure. So, the best you can wish with this kind of flicks is that the murders are actually funny or well done, otherwise there’ll never be any tension for the fate of random flat characters. Ghost stories can share this kind of incipit with slasher movies, or worse, they can have the usual protagonist who had a traumatic experience in the past and so on, lots of boring flashbacks and the result is always the same.


So, what happens when Ti West comes up with a brilliant movie, with real characters, a conventional yet well orchestrated plot and a perfect mix of comedy and horror? The Innkeepers. And nobody understands it, apparently. Like his previous work, The House of the Devil, despite having gathered many positive reviews, the usual comment is: nothing happens. The overexposure to plotless gorefest flicks may have led the large amount of the audience to think that if the girl doesn’t show her boobs for the entire flick, nor does she fuck with her male companion, then it’s all useless. Ti West cares about his characters, and doesn’t lose times telling what the characters should be, but he takes all the time needed to show them to us, through their actions, their dialogues, their faces.


Claire, an innkeeper of the Yankee Pedlar Inn, along with her friend Luke, is determined to discover the truth about the ghost of Madeleine O’Malley, which is said to haunt the hotel. Sara Paxton is just plain wonderful, as she portrays a shy but energetic girl, that doesn’t know what to do with her life, not having any ambition, but still tormenting herself on her immobility. We don’t have the usual voice-over that explains this to us, nor a flashback or dull dialogues. Claire often lowers her head when talking to others, she gets bored while talking with people that she doesn’t care about. She often act childish in many situations, walking awkwardly when disappointed, dragging her feet like a 5 year old brat. You get to know her in different ways, such as the long, and comically cute, scene where she takes out the trash, almost acting like a silent movie clown, or just by noticing how her nail polish is almost entirely peeled off. The other characters are well portrayed as well, but of course the focus is on Claire. Nonetheless, West choices on casting are always accurate, opting for good acting or strong screen presence. The character portayed by Pat Haley, even if not fully developed as Claire, is a good example of how West is able to exploit stereotypes, the geek type, but at the same time inflating them with meaning. So is the character of Kelly McGillis, that maybe lacks in depth but accomplishes her role of supporting character who is anyway deeply involved in the plot. The other roles, the mother and son (Alison Bartlett and Jake Ryan) and the old man (George Riddle), don’t get much screen time, but their strong appeal is enough to imprint them in the mind of the viewer. The puzzling face of the kid, as Claire tells him the story of the ghost that haunts the hotel, is weirdly scary, as is the old man in its entirety, how he talks and moves slowly, as if carrying something more than his age on his shoulders.


Ti West is able to extend the characterization throughout the entire movie, and not just in the beginning, thus creating  a rare mix of comedy and horror. There’s an emblematic scene, at the beginning, where Luke shows a video to Claire, one of those Youtube clips where all of a sudden something pops on the screen and the volume goes loud, and jumping on the chair is inevitable. This is the most common way to scare the audience, but also the easiest. West doesn’t work this way. The slow camera movements accompany us on a tour of the hotel, perfectly neat and well lit, and yet we never know what could be around the corner, behind the door.  Even if nothing happened yet, we tend to be suspicious. The lacks of guests, the disturbing silence are just the beginning. Later on, during the “recording sessions”, while Claire looks around for signals by the ghost, most of the atmosphere is created by sounds. We hear cries, whispers, an ethereal piano that plays in a broken way. The line between reality and hallucination is thin, and becomes blurrier as the film goes  on. The unbearable tension will explode in the final climax, but before getting there, West has scattered hints and frights along the way. It’s mathematics. The cinematography, by Eliot Rockett, is vivid and simple, but plays numerous tricks in the basement scenes, and is overall functional to the general atmosphere. The music, originally composed by Jeff Grace, has a certain retrò taste, distinctive but not overwhelming, it accompanies most of the dialogues, contributing to increase the tension, and disappears when ambient sounds are more important, but it returns to accompany the more frantic scenes. A clever and dosed utilization that doesn’t highlights the obvious.

The film has a high number of meta elements, but not in an exposed way as Scream, nor it has any of the trite post-modern irony that infests the majority of contemporary products. West plays with clichés and stereotypes but succeeds in giving his own imprint on the overall product, and this is almost a miracle, if we look at the endless amount of crappy sequels, prequels, reboots and so on. Ti West loves horror, that’s clear, but apart from scaring us, he’s able to give us believable characters,  especially female ones, the most mistreated category of horror movies, in such a natural way that makes me wonder what would he be able to achieve with other genres other than this. An independent movie, with few characters, one location and lots of atmosphere. This is enough for Ti West to make an excellent movie, a ghost story for the minimum wage.

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