The Yankee Pedlar Inn is closing and with the hotel all but empty during its final weekend, employees Claire (Sarah Paxton) and Luke (Pay Healy) utilise their time by investigating their supposedly haunted surroundings. Yet, as they dig deeper, they begin to suspect that the hotel’s resident spook may be more than just a story and that her intentions are less welcoming.
Ti West is a talent to look out for. Despite being given some lacklustre directing duties (Cabin Fever 2 anyone?), when the man is working from his own script, he demonstrates a detailed knowledge of horror troupes and how they work. More interested in slow-burning than shock-and-awe, what sets him apart from most recent horror directors is a natural ability to wring tension out of a minimal film-making style. The pace is meditative and deliberate, and, in the case of his excellent The House of the Devil, when the scares come they are usually short, sharp, and shockingly brutal.
What quickly becomes apparent during the opening scenes of The Innkeepers is that this is a very different film from The House of the Devil yet unquestionably a Ti west vehicle. Our characters are introduced via their mundane actions and, despite their boredom, Claire and Luke are a duo you want to spend time with. Whilst there are elements of mystery from the beginning, much of the film’s first half relies heavily on our liking of these two and their almost sibling-like relationship. Yet it’s Claire that inevitably becomes the main focus, as her curiosity turns into outright obsession, with Luke turning tail when things get too creepy for his liking.
It’s this insistence on character over scares that ultimately makes the film work. West throws us enough to keep us interested, (Kelly McGillis as Leanne Rease-Jones remains an enigma for much of the run-time) yet when the third act kicks into gear, you genuinely fear for our heroes. Despite being occasionally irritating, Claire is spritely if naïve, the personification of niceness and, when things eventually go to pot, you desperately wish for her to come out unscathed. She’s not a bad person, she has just stumbled across something beyond her abilities to handle.
There are problems. Despite knowing our protagonists so intimately, there are moments you’d wish the film would get to the point and the occasional gag, normally at Claire’s expense, fall short and become irksome rather than funny, but the end result is successful enough to allow these grievances to slide. It builds dread with little effort with minimal trickery. At a time where the taste of the Saw franchise is still prominent, it’s great to see a filmmaker who appreciates the approach of less-is-more.
Few recent ghost stories have been this chilling.