Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Uninvited Guests

As I was making my way through the lobby of the theater after I finished watching Ti West's new movie, The Innkeepers (2011), I overheard two separate conversations about the ending of the movie. One of these conversations opined that the heroine of the movie didn't deserve what happened to her. That, in fact, she was a complete innocent. This is certainly true. The second conversation had a very specific complaint about the last shot of the movie: they thought that the movie cheated them because it foreshadowed the last shot with one of those shock-tactic ghost movies that occasionally goes viral on YouTube, and then wimped out by not giving them a payoff. For myself, I think if The Innkeepers HAD ended with a jolt of that sort, it would have been a cheap shot, but then I remember that the end of Carrie has that kind of quality to it, so who am I to judge. I'm just happy that West and his collaborators don't go there. I'm happy, too, that he understands that sometimes, you have to torment your heroine, no matter how sweet and perky she may be.

The Innkeepers takes place in the venerable Yankee Pedlar Inn (a real hotel, as it so happens, in Torrington, CT, where the film was shot). The hotel is closing for good. On its last weekend, its remaining employees decided they want to play ghost hunter. These are Claire and Luke. Luke has set up a website to document the hauntings in the Yankee Pedlar, and he's brought an EVP recorder to the hotel to track the ghosts. Claire is willing to play along. The old hotel is creepy when it's empty. On its last weekend, it has only a small handful of guests. One of them is a mother and son who are taking some time away from her husband. Another is an aging actress who is in town for a "healing" convention. She's a New Age healer, sensitive to the spirit world. The final guest is an old man who stayed in the honeymoon suite with his late wife. He wants one last night in that room before the hotel is shuttered. Over the course of the three nights, Claire and Luke bitch about their job and snipe about the guests. Claire forms a relationship with the brusque actress, though one that is contentious. As the hours click away, Claire becomes more and more convinced that there really IS a haunting, that the spirit of Madeline O'Malley, who died in a famous tragedy decades before, still walks the halls of the hotel...

The Innkeepers is a slow burn horror movie along the lines of director Ti West's last film, House of the Devil. That film teased and teased until it provided an abrupt payoff at the end. West, it seems, likes to punctuate his movies with an exclamation point before sending his audience to the exit. Unlike House of the Devil, The Innkeepers might work just fine without any supernatural hijinks. The core of the movie is the relationship between Claire and Luke, who (surprisingly) are not lovers or even interested in each other. They're a couple of bored friends working a crap job and filling the empty hours of that job as best they can. Their banter is genuinely funny. Both Sara Paxton as Claire and Pat Healy as Luke are perfectly cast as snarky service sector young people. They manage a dry kind of disillusion without lapsing into full blown hipster irony. The underlying terror involved with the hotel, especially in the third act defuses any of that. Kelly McGillis plays Leanne Rease-Jones, the actress, and she growls through a part that could easily be a parody of a New Age actress. McGillis is finding a nice second career in horror movies these days, and I hope she keeps it up. She's good in these parts. So first and foremost, this is a character study, and it's a pretty good one, too. There are straight up indie comedies that aren't nearly as fun or as funny as The Innkeepers. The people who complained that House of the Devil took too long to get where it was going should have no complaints here, even though this film has a virtually identical structure.

Still, The Innkeepers is a horror movie, first, and it doesn't skimp on the horror. Oh, it withholds its big shocks until the film's last ten minutes or so, but it spends a lot of time whispering to the audience, inserting a mounting dread into the consciousness in an almost subliminal fashion. There's a scene early in the film in which Claire is wearing a pair of big earphones and the soundtrack becomes appropriately muffled. It's a nice indication that sound is going to play a huge role in the film, and so it does. The EVP recorder provides the filmmakers with some of the film's icier chills, while also providing sound designer Graham Reznick an excuse to create a minutely detailed soundscape for the movie. This is something that The Innkeepers does better than most horror movies, and it shouldn't be underestimated. It's not content to jolt the audience with sudden noises--though it does that, too. It also gets the audience involved by forcing them to actually listen hard to the soundtrack, because that's where the first breaths of other worlds end up whispering. West is good at evoking lonely, abandoned spaces, too. There's an Edward Hopperish feeling to the corridors and rooms of the Yankee Pedlar, and a Kubrickian feel, too. The film was obviously tailored to a real location, but that location is an ideal setting.

I like the ambiguity at the end of the film, too. When all is said and done, there's no concrete assurance that what actually happened in the Yankee Pedlar was the result of ghosts. It sets this up masterfully, with small things like an asthma inhaler and a bird trapped by cellar doors. Oh, we're pretty sure there are ghosts, but the film provides a viewpoint that is just subjective enough to cast doubt on that. Which brings me back around to the end of the film. The reason that the people grousing about the ending of this film are wrong is that had West provided one of those cheap shots, he would have dismantled the ambiguity he worked so hard to create. The audience would have KNOWN that the ghosts were real and that would have let them shrug the whole thing off. But as a portrait of haunted people? That's not so easy to walk away from, particularly when those people are so likeable.


Aubyn said...

"I'm happy, too, that he understands that sometimes, you have to torment your heroine, no matter how sweet and perky she may be."

Frankly, I'd rather have a tormented and likable protagonist than spend 80 minutes watching characters I despise get brutally maimed and killed. Just my personal taste.

I like how you singled out the sound design here. I don't think about it much, not being a true horror film fan, but sound really is the unsung hero of horror, isn't it? Kudos for a good point and a well-reasoned review.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Rachel,

There's a story about John Carpenter that goes something like this: he was sitting in a screening room watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which is a relatively loud movie in its last act, and he had an epiphany. He thought that silence would be more effective. He built that epiphany into Halloween. So, yeah, sound is important to horror movies, maybe more important than blood.