Sunday, October 14, 2012

Ruptured Reasoning: The Innkeepers (2011)

Director: Ti West

Cast: Sara Paxton, Pat Healty, Alison Bartlett

Netflix Synopsis: In this eerie ghost story, a venerable inn closes after a century in business and the two remaining employees are determined to uncover the truth about longtime rumors that the majestic mansion is haunted -- but will they survive their explorations?

CHRIS: I was mentioning to Justin a night or two ago that, even with no conscious planning on our part, our first few movies in this series had all been completely different styles of horror. Pontypool was zombies, The Snowtown Murders had serial killers, Crawlspace kind of fell into 80’s slasher territory, Vile was a torture movie, and Eyes Without a Face was a classic old-school movie. We were pretty much just missing ghosts, monsters, and vampires.

Well, our trend continued last night with The Innkeepers, a very impressive film from Ti West that was about some spooky, spooky ghosts. As the title implies, it is entirely set in a hotel, and the two remaining staff members are our main characters. According to legend, a woman met a grisly fate on the grounds many years before, and her spirit is trapped forever.

Claire and Luke, the titular innkeepers, have been trying to make contact with the ghost for a while, it seems, but the task now takes on more urgency because the hotel is about to be shut down and turned into a parking lot. If they don’t do something now, their chance will be lost forever. Of course, soon they will wish that they just left well enough alone.

Okay, that set-up is fairly conventional. They aren’t breaking any new ground with the plot. Instead, the movie’s greatest strength lies in its lead actress, Sara Paxton. She was just so intensely likeable, and I thought she was fantastic throughout the film. She hit all the right notes, whether the scene called for her to be scared, funny, earnest, or whatever.

There aren’t many characters in the film, so it is even more important that we care about all of them. In addition to the main protagonists, there are four guests staying in the hotel: a woman and her son, who check out relatively early in the movie, a famous actress-turned-spiritualist, and an old man who has to come to stay in the same room where he spent his honeymoon. But mostly, the camera remains focused on Claire, who is in nearly every scene.

You probably shouldn't go down there.
The film is expertly shot in a way that maximizes the level of dread we feel while watching it. Or it did for me, anyway. There was a nice mixture of both “cheap” and “genuine” scares, enough to always keep me on edge. I can think of a couple of scenes where Claire would be framed in the left third of the screen, standing in front of a doorway or corridor, and I would watch intently, just knowing that something terrifying was going to happen in the background. Usually it didn’t, but it’s a testament to how well the movie was made that nothing happening could get such an effect.

This was certainly the most frightening entry in our series so far, and it may very well be the best. Because it’s so new and I recommend it so highly, I’m going to avoid spoilers in this post (UPDATE: There are spoilers in my second segment near the end of the post). I wouldn’t want to ruin the experience for our seven or eight readers. I’m interested to hear some outside perspectives on whether the events in the movie were “real,” or if they were simply a figment of Claire’s imagination. I’m not convinced one way or the other.

Now I’ll turn it over to Justin, who was weeping and vomiting with terror throughout most of the movie. We’ll see if he can keep it together during his write-up.

JUSTIN: Thanks, Chris. I'll do my best.

I'm with you all the way. This movie was fantastic. I'd go so far as to say it's the best film we've watched for this series by far.

For those of you who love horror, Ti West is somebody you should really look into. He's listed as the writer, director, and editor. These are his movies through and through. He's got three movies on Netflix Instant: House of The Devil, Trigger Man, and The Innkeepers. He's got a great sense of style and pacing.

He makes horror films in an older style that seems completely out of place with how horror films are made today. Early in the film Ti West shows us one of those ghost internet videos that used to be everywhere. The ones where you're asked to stare at some unmoving object for a long time and then a creepy face pops up and a loud sound scares you. I have to imagine it's a subtle jab at Paranormal Activity, which his little more than an hour and a half of that.

Later on, this moment is repeated in the film, but West doesn't cop out. Ti West builds the tension very slowly, choosing to focus on character and setting. We can see the payoff in The Innkeepers. Not much happens, but we are so connected with the characters and so frightened by the potential of the hotel that even the hint of something happening is enough.

Bob Newhart and Mary Frann are... The Innkeepers.
I also loved the performances. Both Sara Paxton, and Pat Healy are excellent. They should be; they're working from a great script. Normally, quirky characters like this annoy me. It seems that when a screenwriter wants to write a quirky, cool character they never look beyond making them quirky and cool. Not the case here. Both of these characters are funny and real. They seem like people we've met before, and it's impossible not to feel for them.

Chris, you already brought up the question of whether or not the ghosts are real. I think this makes the film one of the more interesting ghost stories I've seen in a long, long time. It's not a movie about ghosts, it's about fear. How fear infects and feeds on itself. It's so relatable. We've all had that experience. A strange noise in the middle of the night, a shadow moving out of our peripheral vision. Did our mind create all of that? Or was some of it real? I think Ti West has made a ghost film about the very nature of ghosts. The question isn't “Were the ghosts real?” but rather “Have they ever been real?” or have they always been products of fear-infected minds?

CHRIS: If the question is whether or not ghosts have ever been real in real life, then there's an easy answer: no. But within the world of the movie, who knows? They could be swarming all over the place. There are events in the film that just make it impossible to say for sure, though. Some have plausible explanations, while others are much more difficult. Unless, of course, Claire was hallucinating, which is certainly a possibility.


I understand that the uncertainty was West's goal, but as a good truth-seeker, I wish I knew what really happened. We neither see Claire's death nor do we hear a cause of death, which would be a critical piece of information to have. Was she covered in ectoplasm? Did she get slimed? Fall down the stairs again? Or, as Justin suggested last night, did she possibly have a fatal asthma attack?

On multiple occasions throughout the movie, Claire would take a hit from her inhaler when she got scared. Since she was scared a lot, we became quite familiar with this behavior. When Luke is talking to the police at the end of the film, we find out that her inhaler was at the bottom of the stairs. It is certainly possible that she became so frightened that she had an attack and couldn't get to it in time.

Again, we'll never know for sure, and that's the point. I think it speaks to the quality of the movie that it's possible to have this conversation, but it's even more of a testament that I care enough to think about it in the first place.

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