The Refreshingly Mundane Scares of 'The Innkeepers'

Filmmaker Ti West says his new horror film is in the vein of The Shining, not Saw.

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Monsters and madmen, ghosts and goblins, demons and disease. Horror cinema offers up an A (aliens) to Z (zombies) of items to be frightened of. But do any of them really measure up to the existential dread of being 25, stuck in a dead-end job, and lacking the skills or the ambition to get out? That's a trap more difficult to escape than anything dreamed up by Jigsaw, the creative torturer and Rube Goldberg aficionado at the center of the Saw series.

Jigsaw was the face of '00s horror just as surely as the hockey-masked visage of Jason Voorhees came to define the '80s, but both of the series they anchored have unfortunately helped to redefine the horror film as a vehicle for cheap thrills, ignoring the genre's deeper powers. Director Ti West, whose new film, The Innkeepers, hits selected theaters today, thinks horror can do a lot more.

"I wanted to make a very traditional, old-fashioned ghost story with really modern, kind of nerdy-esque characters who didn't really belong in it," West says.

"I'll tell people about my movies, and they'll say, 'I don't watch horror movies,'" West told The Atlantic. "And I'll say, yeah, but what about The Shining? What about The Exorcist? 'Oh, well that's different.' Most people like The Shining, The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby. They think they're terrifying movies and really great works of art, but they don't associate that with the horror genre."

In much the same way, many people might watch The Innkeepers and not think of it as horror either. The film takes place in The Yankee Pedlar, an old, small town Connecticut hotel where two desk clerks, Claire and Luke (Sara Paxton and Pat Healy) are working the inn's final weekend before it closes for good, riding out the endless hours on a wave of ennui and apathy. There isn't much for them to do. No more than two rooms are ever occupied at any one time during the weekend. As Luke observes, it's not hard to figure out why they're going out of business.

Faced with a whole lot of time to kill, the pair turns to some amateur ghost hunting at the reputedly haunted Pedlar. Luke has previously encountered the spirits who are said to haunt the hotel's hallways, and is attempting to monetize his otherworldly contact by collecting some evidence for a rather hilariously amateurish website he's building. Claire, who's never seen any strange occurrences herself, is an enthusiastic assistant, mostly because she has little else going on in her life.

That absence of direction is what The Innkeepers is really about, and where its real horror lies. West's film is a visual manifestation of the trapped psychology and the deeply unsettling anxieties of the aimless. He accomplishes this with cleverly placed peripheral characters that he describes as "representations of where you can go in life." One of the hotel's rooms is occupied by a mother and her young son; she's having marital trouble and needs to get away from home for a few days. Another is a barista saddled with relationship problems so tedious to hear about that Claire bolts the coffee shop without even getting her drink when forced to listen to them. A sad old man shows up after the death of his wife to spend one last night in the room where they had their honeymoon decades ago. All roads lead back to the Pedlar. Add in the ghost of a bride who committed suicide in one of the rooms, and one can't even escape after death.

Of course, representing the fear of existential inertia onscreen necessarily means that for much of The Innkeepers, not a whole lot happens. Claire and Luke talk. There's an occasional interaction with the guests. Claire and Luke talk some more. If there's such a thing as a mumblecore horror film, this is it. Only unlike the ramshackle amateurish aesthetic that often defines that indie sub-genre, West's film feels meticulously planned out.

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Ian Buckwalter is a freelance film writer based in Washington, D.C. He contributes regularly to NPR, Washingtonian, and DCist.

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