I went into writer/director Ti West's 2011 low-budget horror film The Innkeepers, knowing absolutely nothing about what was waiting for me. I avoided reviews and barely even glanced at the copy on the back of the Blu-ray case. All I knew was that West had made a film I really enjoyed called House of the Devil back in 2009 and I was very interested to see how he followed that up.
The Innkeepers is the latest film by West to be produced through Glass Eye Pix, a New York based indie Production Company headed by filmmaker Larry Fessenden (The Last Winter, Wendigo, Habit). Most of the work Glass Eye Pix produces are low-budget horror films that break the mold of what one usually expects from the genre (and the budgetary restraints), and I've yet to be really disappointed by a film with their name on it – last year's Stake Land(by Jim Mickle and Nick Damici) stands as an excellent example of this.
As with House of the Devil, what we have here is a very smart, well-written and performed little film that builds tension masterfully with many casually-paced scenes that lay groundwork for the climax while letting us get to know the quirky main characters, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) through very natural dialogue. Take note that when I say "casually-paced' I mean it. This is not a thrill-ride or something to slam beers to. This is the good stuff.
Paxton and Healy do a fantastic job bringing Claire and Luke to life, making their geekiness cute and endearing. This is a script that wasn't written as a comedy, but the actors' charm is infectious and elevates the dialogue in ways that other actors might not have. The fact that there was no rehearsal time and Paxton and Healy met just the day before shooting makes their on-screen relationship all the more impressive. The surprise arrival of Kelly McGillis as former TV star turned psychic medium, Leanne Rease-Jones is equally well-cast.
Our story is all about the final weekend of the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a New England hotel over one hundred years old and finally closing its doors for good. The Inn is manned by Claire and Luke, who are determined to capture some evidence that the place is haunted by the spirit of Madeline O'Malley (Brenda Cooney). It plays with the popular conventions of the current rash of Ghost Hunter TV shows and we get a number of scenes where our heroes try to make contact and capture an audio recording of an EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) for proof. In fact, Luke has a website called Real Hauntings with photos and video from the Inn featured in the film that can be found here. Check it out and sign the guestbook!
I'm especially glad that West didn't go for the overused night vision camera approach. Whether that was a conscious decision or a result of the very limited budget doesn’t matter. By concentrating on Sound Designer Graham Reznick's audio mix, it allows the film to breathe through long silences, characterized by subtle textures and punctuated with sharp shocks.
When balanced with the clever dialogue, we've got a film that defies current genre expectations, and West is able to craft a wonderful piece of work reminiscent of classics like The Haunting (1963), The Legend of Hell House (1973), or even The Shining (1980). Shooting on 35 mm film instead of video, also helps to make this something a little special. The picture quality is pristine, with deep dark shadows and even in scenes lit only with flashlights we can still clearly see what is going on, unlike other low-budget films I've watched recently.
The Innkeepers didn't get a very big release, playing in only 25 theaters its opening weekend and dropping down to five by its fourth and final week. It brought in a decent total domestic gross of just over $78,000 and if there's any justice, it should do well on DVD and Blu-ray.
Although, as a low-budget film, the video release doesn't really come packed with features. There are two audio commentaries; one with Ti West, producers Peter Phok and Larry Fessenden, and second unit director/sound designer Graham Reznick; the second with Ti West and stars Sara Paxton and Pat Healy. The commentary track with the actors is pleasant and there are some funny stories here and there, but listening to West, Phok, Fessenden, and Reznick is actually very educational as well as interesting. We get a lot of insight into the creative process behind the film, as well as stories from the 17-day production.
For example, this is the same hotel that housed the crew during the filming of House of the Devil, and it really does have a reputation for being haunted. West and crewmembers had a number of strange experiences while staying there that inspired West to script this film. He says that if they hadn't been able to shoot on location at the Yankee Pedlar, the film probably wouldn't even have been made, as the script was so specific to the location.
In addition to the commentaries there is a short behind-the-scenes featurette that is entertaining and adds more insight into the shoot, but ends up being over too quickly for my tastes. I wanted to get in there and see more.
Overall, this is a very nice little package. West has written, directed, and edited another very satisfying film that starts quietly, builds steadily, and ends with a burst of surprise energy (and a few nightmarish bloody visions). The performances all bring out the quirky charms of what are essentially aimless losers about to be out of work – probably for a good long time, given their lack of marketable skills. The script also does an excellent job of establishing deniability as the story reaches its genuinely frightening climax. Maybe there are ghosts in the Inn. Maybe there aren't. By fixing the actual supernatural experiences on Claire's interpretation of events, the conclusion becomes even more tragic if we dismiss the ghosts as imaginary.
That's a little close to being a spoiler, but I don't think it gives too much away. It's not like I told what happened to the creepy old man (George Riddle) who shows up to revisit his old honeymoon suite. Riddle's performance in the few minutes he's on-screen is seriously disturbing. And that's before [REDACTED].
This is the sort of film that makes my job a joy and will reward multiple viewings. I wish more directors and production studios took the time to really focus on filmmaking instead of falling back on spectacle. By concentrating on crafting a film about people and giving so much attention to Claire and Luke's relationship, The Innkeepers becomes something special that is, in my opinion, even better than House of the Devil. I can't wait to see what West does next.
The Innkeepers will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on April 24, 2012.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot, Streaming Pile O' Wha?, and Classic Film/New Blu, all here at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.