American director Ti West returns with the entertaining, if formulaic, ghost story The Innkeepers (2011), starring Sara Paxton and Pat Healy. The Yankee Pedlar Inn is shutting down for good, but before the weekend is out, the last two remaining employees Claire (Paxton) and Luke (Healy) are determined to find evidence of the ghosts that are purported to haunt the halls of the old premises. As they start their investigation, strange events begin to occur and the two employees realise that they may be in for more than they bargained for.
The Innkeepers shows the notable influence of horror classics such as Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) by adopting a location in an isolated environment, where the protagonists are unable to protect themselves or each other. The introductory story of local resident Madeline O’Malley’s (Brenda Cooney) suicide establishes an atmosphere of tension from the earliest scenes, and follows a generic pattern of an historic horrific death resulting in a malevolent spirit unable to ‘pass on’.
West clearly knows the horror genre well and wants to take the best of the old in order to provide something fresh and interesting. To an extent, he has succeeded in this with The Innkeepers. However, there are notable problems, including an unsatisfying conclusion and far too many questions left unanswered despite numerous set-ups that promise to deliver. There are very few characters in the film so it should have been easy to have a streamlined plot, yet there remains plenty of redundancy to its narrative. There is also a distinctive lack of actual physical horror (perfectly fine), with West preferring instead to rely on his atmosphere of tension – but this approach is only occasionally successful.
The film’s greatest strength lies in the performances from Healy and, in particular, Paxton. The Californian actress, last seen in the unnecessary 2009 The Last House on the Left remake, carries the film with her well-balanced turn as Claire, perpetually conveying a strong sense of genuine horror. There are also opportunities for her comic talent to come into play, providing some much-needed light relief at key moments. The on-screen relationship with Healy’s socially dysfunctional Luke is notably strong throughout and adds great touches of humour amidst the horror.
The Innkeepers manages to both entertain and frustrate, but certainly doesn’t show West quite as his directorial best. Fortunately for the emerging filmmaker, two excellent central performances turn a problematic film into something that is, at the very least, slightly unnerving.