Ti West movies are, by their natures, tough to critique. He makes the kinds of films that, if you like them, they’re the cinematic equivalent of Heisenberg blue meth. If you don’t, it’s a hundred minutes of the camera slowly plodding through a fairly normal building while sweet fuck all happens to a skinny, attractive young woman. I was a huge fan of The House of the Devil, owing at least partly to its faithful re-creation of early ‘80s Satan-horror. Netflix kept advertising a horror movie called The Innkeepers at me, featuring a poster that bears a not-insignificant resemblance to Rosemary’s Baby, I finally checked it out. When I learned it was a Ti West joint, I cued it the fuck up.
The historic Yankee Pedlar Inn in Torrington, Connecticut is closing at the end of the weekend (not really — it’s still open, but you know, in the movie). Only the second floor remains in service; the third has been stripped entirely, save for the beds. While the owner is fishing in Barbados, the two remaining employees keep an eye on things. There’s Claire (Sara Paxton, who looks like Alexis Bledel crossed with a tiny bit of Reese Witherspoon), a directionless young woman with bad asthma, and Luke (Pat Healy, who looks like hipster Tintin) a college dropout who just might have a drinking problem. In addition to their official responsibilities, they have a hobby: they’re amateur ghost hunters, using the wee hours to wander around the hotel with recording devices in hopes of catching sight of the supernatural. They’re not completely pulling this from their butts, either. The Yankee Pedlar is supposedly haunted by Madeline O’Malley, an unfortunate woman who died on the premises and whose body was briefly stored in the basement.
The last few guests are a strange bunch as well. A mother stays there with her son after having a fight with her husband. She’s all suspicious glares, mostly directed in Claire’s direction, and serves to create a sense of alienation for our young protagonist. There’s retired actress Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis, and since this is her second movie co-produced by Larry Fessenden, I’m thinking there’s a connection), former star of fictional Like Mother Like Son and current New Age psychic healer. She is a mother figure, at first rejecting Claire’s overtures (she’s a big fan), then as things grow darker, finally agreeing to help. Lastly, there’s an old man who insists on staying on the third floor, despite the absence of things like furniture, television, and bedclothes. He is an eerie presence that assists in undermining Claire’s sense of safe reality.
Much like The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers is perversely slow. Very, very little happens in the hundred minute running time that could be considered scary or supernatural. What West does is creates a very realistic working environment with two well-drawn slackers, complete with nonsensical workplace games. By taking the time to make Claire as real as possible, by the time the danger becomes real, we are much more invested in her fate. She’s not just a movie character, she’s the pretty co-worker who suffered under our long-held crush. And, much like The House of the Devil, the glacial pacing only persists to a certain point. After that, it’s a rocket-powered hellride into the pit.
The early manifestations of the horror focus around EVP, which is shorthand for either “Electronic Voice Phenomenon” or “Total Fucking Bullshit,” depending on your point of view. Normally, the ghost hunter asks questions to an empty room and records the following silence. Later, they will play the recording at high volume and tease out voices in the static. It’s basically an auditory version of pareidolia. Here, it’s much more dramatic, as Claire picks up the ghostly strains of a piano through her headphones, but when she takes them off, the hotel is silent.
The most interesting part of the film is the question of what’s really going on here. In the early going, we’re treated to two Youtube ghost videos in the two genres that exist of Youtube ghost videos. The first is a jump scare with an obviously fake spirit, and the second is a door shutting on by itself (or, as it’s known colloquially, a “breeze”). This tells us the two kinds of phenomena will be perceiving — the fake and the real. In addition, Claire says that because most experiences happen when you’re alone, they have a better chance of seeing something with so few people around. The fact that Luke’s visitation turns out to have been a lie places the situation in more doubt. In fact, the only time Claire experiences the ghost in Luke’s presence, the camera lingers on her face, never showing the spirit, and only conveying its presence with the addition of some queasy bluish light.
This raises the central question of the film: does the supernatural exist solely in Claire’s mind? It’s certainly possible, as the movie goes out of its way to show her traumatized, drunk, injured, or otherwise distressed before and during each obviously occult encounter. Even a healthy mind has a way of playing tricks — if you’re all alone in an old hotel, looking for ghosts, chances are the brain is going to give you what you’re after. Yet the conclusion isn’t entirely apparent. It’s possible Leanne is psychic as she claims, and her initial strange behavior toward Claire was the product of a distinct premonition. The final shot of the movie, echoing the “real” Youtube video, favors the second interpretation.
I personally ascribe to a hybrid opinion. I do not believe the Yankee Pedlar was haunted (in the reality of the movie — much like jackalopes and Uyghurs, ghosts don’t exist in real life) in the beginning. I think it’s haunted in the end. As for who it is, and there are a couple options, that’s up for debate, but the title refers to the ghosts themselves.
The pacing is bound to turn some people off, and that’s a good thing. I’m not arguing that “real cinema fans can appreciate a slow burn,” because that’s rank snobbery. This movie does use its pace well, to allow the audience to settle in for the real scares. Though if you can’t take slow, try something else.