Ti West is no Stanley Kubrick, but he does share the late, great filmmaker’s penchant for slow-burn thrills emanating from central characters whose self-destructive traits just might rear up and bite them in the end.
Ti West is no Stanley Kubrick, but he does share the late, great filmmaker’s penchant for slow-burn thrills emanating from central characters whose self-destructive traits just might rear up and bite them in the end. Think of Tom Cruise in “Eyes Wide Shut,” James Mason in “Lolita" or, more specifically, Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.” With all the subtly of an ax through the door, “The Innkeepers” practically screams out, “Heeeeere’s Ti,” as the ascending king of minimalist horror pays a slacker dude’s homage to his mentor with a darkly humorous concoction that I lovingly refer to as “The Shining: The Next Generation.”
Possessing all the traits of its forbearer – deserted inn, unsettling apparitions, a freaked-out scream queen – “The Innkeepers” follows the Kubrick formula to a T. Yet, West makes it his own, expertly walking the line between tribute and rip-off in assembling a movie that is as referential as it is original.
What sells it, though, is a furiously charming performance by Sara Paxton, a blond-bobbed tomboy projecting a sweet, luminous elan that’s as endearing as it is sexy. Her Claire, a chronic asthmatic, is the sort of fragile, small-town girl you immediately want to throw your arms around and provide an assuring hug. But don’t be quick to sell her short. There’s far more to her than what appears.
You also admire her morbid curiosity when it comes to encountering things that go bump in the night. Yes, Claire, a college dropout stuck in the unbearably boring position of hotel clerk, fancies herself a ghost hunter. It’s an obsession she shares with her older, but no-less pathetic co-worker, Luke (Pat Healy), a stereotypical geek who spends more time tending to his paranormal website than he does tending to the guests at The Yankee Pedlar, a quaint, century-old inn located in the middle of a middling Connecticut village withered by the economic meltdown.
Yes, times are hard, so hard that the inn is shutting its doors permanently at the end of the weekend, leaving Luke and Claire, the only remaining staff, to bring down the curtain after the final four guests check out on Sunday – IF everyone makes it that far. There’s a bit of doubt, you see, because the old place is haunted by the ghost of a jilted bride named Madeline, who Luke and Claire are determined to lure from the ornate woodwork before the place is leveled.
Using the adage of being careful what you wish for as his guide, West lavishes his characters with a series of lamentable events that threaten not only egos and relationships, but also their lives. What’s fun is the ambiguity lurking just below the surface of a script that regularly renders innocuous occurrences – a blown light bulb, a creaking door, an empty beer can tumbling down a staircase – as subtly menacing. All are easily explained, but you’re never sure what’s real and what’s imagined.
I found it all to be funny, clever and intriguing. But I can also see where the impatient among us will be flustered by the movie’s snail pace and blatant refusal to spew blood and mayhem at regular intervals. Definitely not for the “Saw” crowd, but more for fans of vintage classics like “Gaslight,” “Don’t Look Now” and, of course, “The Shining,” all films giving characters prominence over cheap thrills. And what characters they are, all of them establishing themselves as something substantially more than just warm bodies waiting to be eviscerated.
Paxton and Healy are the real standouts, projecting potent chemistry in their off-the-wall banter, as they attempt to survive the ghosts in their presence and in their failed pasts. But we’re also treated to exemplary work by long-forgotten Kelly McGillis (“Top Gun,” “Witness”) as an aging TV actress turned spiritualist who proves both an advocate and adversary for Claire and her misguided hero worship; and Lena Dunham (of “Tiny Furniture” fame), who does more in one comical scene than most actresses can accomplish in an entire movie.
Credit also must go to West for creating such vastly interesting people and giving them far more depth than you’d expect from a low-budget ghost story. And in building on the clout achieved with his last film, the critically acclaimed “House of the Devil,” West climbs another rung up the horror ladder, fast approaching the rarified air of Wes Craven, John Carpenter or maybe even Kubrick, who remains the shining example of what’s possible when you scatter brains among the blood and guts.
THE INNKEEPERS (R for some bloody images and language.) Cast includes Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis and Lena Dunham. Written and directed by Ti West. 3 stars out of 4.