Indie filmmaker Ti West features a familiar Internet meme near the beginning of The Innkeepers: the gag where a unsuspecting victim stares intently at a dull photo until some terrifying image unexpectedly bursts across the screen. It’s a corny “gotcha” moment, but it’s also the first touch of self-awareness in this unique comedy-horror hybrid. Taking a back-to-basics approach in its exploration of the ghost story and its psychological underpinnings, The Innkeepers nimbly re-appropriates old school horror tropes with fiendishly successful results. West beckons the audience into a cold-sweat nightmare with a slow burn of freaky murmurs, ominous portents, and excruciating pans around dark corners, aiming for nothing less than to reclaim the soul of the American horror film.
The Innkeepers is a simple story elevated by its unusually strong characters. Sara Paxton and Pat Healy are amateur ghost hunters attempting to contact the spirit of a jilted bride that they believe haunts the going-out-of-business Yankee Pedlar Inn, using their downtime to fuss over their Geocities-era website and record garbled nighttime whispers. “There’s a lot of money in this right now,” grumbles Healy, acknowledging a bizarre reality in which the living have an economic incentive to harass the dead. The arrival of “healer” and professed psychic Kelly McGillis (in town for a New Age convention!) furthers illustrates the film’s bemusement with the commodification of the paranormal. But this playful skepticism only establishes a false sense of security. McGillis encourages Paxton to ignore the jaded Healy and indulge her curiosity. And despite the heroine’s decision to disregard some pretty obvious warning signs, the audience remains in step with Paxton’s mental state as she blurs the line between inquiry and obsession.
Paxton and Healy have a great comedic rapport that makes The Innkeepers a livelier effort than West’s previous film, the vintage horror homage The House of the Devil. Healy has great deadpan timing, but Paxton is simply fantastic: a gorgeous pixie who effortlessly transforms into a gawky, high-strung underachiever, sweetly oblivious to Healy’s crush on her. She has a frustrating penchant for running herself into dead ends, but remains affecting in peril thanks to her overall likeability and determination to find some damn answers. By taking the time to craft such believable relationships, West earns amnesty for the times he squanders it all on anticlimactic boo! moments. But even with only a handful of thoughtful scares, The Innkeepers is able to crank up the tension until it becomes almost unbearable – a diabolical strategy that forces us to admit that sometimes we fear everything we know (or think we know) just as much as everything we don’t.
The Innkeepers is currently available via Video On Demand and in select theaters on February 3.