The Innkeepers (2011) is an interesting one. Above and beyond itself, it’s a film which makes me wonder whether going into a movie with any expectation of liking, even loving it, is sometimes a bad thing. Is it better, after all, to go in neutral, or even negative and get pleasantly surprised? I’d heard wonders about Ti West’s good ol’ fashioned ghost story from nearly all of my peers before I finally got the chance to see it for myself. So, I went in pretty confident of a thrilling horror film, happy that I was going to feel spooked, not repulsed. This isn’t what I got. I came out irritated, disappointed, and saying to myself, ‘Is it just me?’ So – is it?
The basic set-up is thus: Claire (Sarah Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) work at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a place of reputedly dark history and hauntings. The place is about to close, though, so any pretensions of finding out The Frightening Truth about the inn needs to happen soon; with this in mind, Claire takes it largely upon herself to become a paranormal investigator during her shifts. Hey, it’s not as if she’s doing much other work. She wants to look into the legend of Madeleine O’Malley, a once-resident of the Yankee Pedlar who allegedly committed suicide. As the ghost of the poor woman doesn’t seem to have caused much bother to Claire, Luke or any of the current guests, it seems a bit unkind to stir her up from her afterlife and remind her of her miserable past, but hey ho.
Bear in mind here that I have condensed the basic plot (which takes up the lion’s share of the film), taking out all the lengthy, aimless filler that has been slotted around it. Argh. The Innkeepers is a film of pointless conversation. My impression is that West wanted to slowly build a relationship between audience and main characters, taking well over an hour to do it, but he has taken a risk here because, if you don’t warm to those characters (and guess which side of the divide I’m on?) then you feel as though you’re being battered around the head with inanity. The character of Claire, in particular, fell absolutely flat with me. I’m sure I was meant to think she was cutesy and cool; I thought she was hyper, nervy and quite stupid. Getting someone to endlessly use words like ‘cool’ and ‘dude’ felt contrived, and the repetition of scenes where Claire throws herself down onto a bed or a couch in a bored ‘I’m feigning sleep’ way, the camera trained on her sticking her bottom lip out, made her seem childish. (And is this the most asthmatic asthmatic we’ve ever had on screen? You could invent a drinking game whereby you down a shot every time Claire toots on her inhaler. You’d be annihilated by the one-hour mark, so much does Claire dominate the screen doing little else.)
Luke was a little more bearable, but again, a hackneyed script painted him into a corner. His delivery is slow, almost stoned, possibly as a balance to Claire’s endless jitters, but it made him yet another ‘whoah, dude’ stereotype for the most part. As for the guests, of whom there are a maximum of four, most notable is probably Kelly McGillis, who plays a psychic lady of a certain age in town for a convention, whose role it is to prophecy doom and gloom via some horrible new age platitudes and a crystal on a chain. Is West sending himself up here, or even making fun of us via this naive script? I cannot be certain, but I do know I felt sorry for McGillis; whether West was teasing us with these bland aphorisms about ‘the spirits’, lulling us into a false sense of security, or whether he was in earnest with these lines, McGillis was the one who had to try and make them carry.
Well, this is a ghost story, and I’ve barely mentioned ghosts. The film doesn’t really produce any for most of the movie either, but let’s get back to what this was all meant to be about. Claire decides to experiment with EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena) in different rooms of the hotel; in fact, the EVP element is one of the major plot themes. For those unfamiliar with the concept, EVP usually involves people making recordings – which sound innocuous enough in real-time – in places of alleged hauntings: they may ask questions etc. intended to draw the ghostie out. These recordings are then played back and – hey presto – people sometimes say they can identify mysterious voices and sounds which, and this is important, they didn’t hear at the time. This stuff is all over the internet, by the way, should any readers wish to know more. The Innkeepers decided to dispense with this aspect of EVP however, and made the weird sounds/voices audible in real time. Thus it isn’t EVP as most people would recognise it, and the tape recorder which Claire uses while she asks her perky questions is a bit of an irrelevance. It allows West to dispense with the time it would take for Claire to get around the hotel and then play back the tape (which would have built more tension than the discussions which are included, though) but it reduces the point of using EVP as a plot motif in the first place. I think it irritated me because this is one key way which West uses to crowbar some spookiness into the earlier phase of the film, but it’s misrepresented. Oh, and – I don’t think I’m spoilering here as the image is on the poster but – that ghost? Complete cliché. Must all female ghosts look like they just clambered out of a goth club at dawn?
What we have instead of the build of tension is, sadly, as with so many other films which purport to be scary, an over-reliance on jump scares, one of which happens very early (setting the tone), and then several false scares. For me, that is not atmospheric. It’s so formulaic these days, where ghost stories on film so rarely deliver, that the whole ‘being made to jump’ feels like manipulation, and it’s lazy. I’d even say it’s easy to do, far easier than the slow build up to feeling unsettled. So – to recap – so far we have; aimless conversation; JUMP!!!; aimless conversation punctuated by a few scares; and then – finally – the plot kicks in. This takes us off in a new direction, and tries to ratchet up the tension quickly.
West shows he is capable of some blood-curdling stuff come the last twenty minutes or so. I’ll give him that. It’s just that it’s all too little too late. The formulaic elements had long since killed off my interest, the characters didn’t engage me, and then the story itself cannot sustain the excessive length of the film (editors! Fight to do your jobs!) My patience was exhausted by the hour mark; I could not give of myself a renewed engagement with the events on-screen. More to the point, I didn’t care what happened.
So, there are definitely perils to going into a film expecting to enjoy it. I think perhaps people were more delighted with the premise than the results with The Innkeepers, though of course that’s coloured by my own indifference to this film. But look; I, too, would love to see more supernatural scares on-screen. I really would. But I can’t just claim to support any film which is prepared to try, and I can’t skip past the problems to laud praise on the few moments which worked.