Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Innkeepers

NetFlix 2.7/5
IMDB 5.6/10
My Rating: 8/10

Two minimum wage, 20-something employees face the last weekend of operation at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a historic establishment that is closing its doors.  Their bored hours are spent doing amateur ghosthunting, until disturbing things begin going bump in the night.

First off, I must say that I absolutely loved this movie - I adored every minute of it and enjoyed the characters, the plot, and definitely the style of direction.  That said, I seem to be in the minority - A lot of viewers, especially younger ones, absolutely hate the film and thus its low IMDB score.  Even more puzzling is the dislike among reviewers I otherwise tend to agree with, like Emily over at Deadly Dolls, who was hoping it would be another House of the Devil.  That seems to be a common refrain - Fans of Ti West, the director, loved HOTD and want another HOTD, and this is not that and thus they are disappointed.    I enjoyed HOTD too, but I liked Innkeepers better.

Maybe what others miss is the retro-70's style of HOTD.  I loved it but I also found it a little distracting, in the sense that half my brain was marveling over their careful recreation of a grainy late 70's drive-in movie and paying less attention to the story.  Innkeepers eschews the retro look but proceeds in gloriously retro pace, which seems to be the other bone of internet contention.  One of the most common complaints on IMDB is, "It's so SLOOOOOOW."  Yes.  Yes, it is slow.  That's called, "Building tension and atmosphere", and not many movies bother with that anymore, much to their detriment.  Instead of giving us a pile of characters with 3 minutes of screen time and one breast flash each, and then burying us in chop-chop mayhem, Innkeepers spends most of its running time simply letting us follow the two main characters and get a feel for who they are, and care about them.  And what great characters they are!

Sara Paxton plays Claire, the heroine, and you already love her, you just don't know it yet.  Seriously, she was one of the most appealing horror film heroines I have seen in years, maybe decades...  This is not a case where you're just passing time until the annoying characters die.  You'll genuinely care for her and that makes the scary parts of the film a hundred times more fearful.  She and co-star Pat Healy also pull off the near-impossible in creating a pair of bored yoof-generation types that I didn't immediately want to kill.  Instead, you're drawn into the sheer pettiness of their lives - Both are undirected.  They don't know what they want to do.  They have no goals.  All they can think to do in their spare time is fritter it away.  Someone on another board pointed out that it was a theme of the movie that the Yankee Pedlar seemed to draw in "lost souls" like a vortex, and consume them, and I thought that was a clever observation.  They're the last employees running the hotel until the bitter end and this gives them impetus to hang on there when otherwise you'd hit the usual haunted house movie plot problem of, "Just leave the house!"  They could, but to be blunt, they don't really have anywhere else to go.

I am increasingly convinced that Ti West, the director, is one of the few directors left in Hollywood who knows how to properly pace a film.  Conversations are long takes that you're drawn into, not chopped up with 57 cuts to create faux-tension.  When a character walks cautiously down a spooky hall, the camera follow them slowly, tracking them for sustained tension instead of cutting every 3 seconds or, god forbid, spinning in circles around them as they walk.  This movie was the virtual antithesis of everything I've hated about the recent Doctor Who seasons for the simple reason that Ti West knows how to hold a camera still.  So basic, and yet so rare...  and for me it was a joy to be able to relax into the story and the personalities, without constantly being reminded of how clever the cameraman or director thought he was.

So, is it boring?  Well, it wasn't to me.  Other reviewers fuss that nothing happens until the last 20 minutes, but I viewed that time as investment in the atmosphere, of which Innkeepers has oodles.  I haven't run across many films that build this sort of nervousness so well.  It harkens back to movies like The Shining or The Fog, where "brooding" becomes a palpable thing.  And as for the last act, holy crap, I was on the edge of my seat!  My one real complaint is with the very final scene, or rather the "secret scene" - A bit that was rendered so subtly that I did not notice it on the first viewing, and found the ending rather generic.  Only after reading about it and following it with the director's commentary did I spot "the secret"... Probably a very unusual case of a director being TOO subtle.

In the end, I give this lots of love - It's one of the rare movies I want to go out and buy on blu-ray.  I wish badly that I'd held onto it and watched it on Halloween night, because it would have been a perfect Halloween treat.  If you can't handle slow movies, it's not for you.  But, if you're fond of older films and especially 40's-style haunted house pictures, I recommend it highly.  I haven't liked a ghost story this much since poor Eleanor met her fate in The Haunting in 1963.