Ti West’s “The Innkeepers” (2011)

Notable Festivals: South By Southwest, Melbourne, Stockholm

After the success of 2009’s THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, director Ti West teamed up once again with his mentor and producing partner Larry Fessenden to realize his vision for an old-fashioned ghost story titled THE INNKEEPERS (2011). He was inspired by a charming, spooky hotel in Connecticut called the Yankee Pedlar Inn, where he purportedly stayed during the production of THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL.  His idea was a return to the haunted-house chillers that he had loved as a kid, the kind that were popular in the 1980’s and didn’t take themselves too seriously.  THE INNKEEPERS was the first West film I had the pleasure of seeing on the big screen, and it was maybe the most visceral experience I’ve had watching a horror film in quite a while—I saw it with two other guy friends of mine, and we were literally jumping out of our seats.

When we begin the story, we find the Yankee Pedlar Inn on the eve of it’s closure—the historic old hotel’s glory days are far behind it, and it is slowly being forgotten in the rush of the modern world.  Two concierge clerks, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healey) keep the hotel running, despite the fact that there is nothing to run.  There’s maybe one or two guests staying in the entire building, so they spend their days and nights goofing off and recording their nightly ghost hunts for their paranormal website.  For the most part, any paranormal activity seems to have departed with the hotel’s business, but their luck changes when an ex-actress and spiritual mystic named Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis) checks in and helps them contact the spirit of a bride who was murdered on the grounds.  Claire and Luke soon get more than they bargained for when the spirits multiply and began to exact punishment for having their slumber disturbed.

West is an unconventional independent filmmaker in that his rise hasn’t necessarily been dependent on casting well-known names and faces.  He instead prefers talent that’s well-known to loyal niche groups, such as Tom Noonan or Dee Wallace. With THE INNKEEPERS, his highest-profile performer is Lena Dunham, and she only has a brief cameo as an over-talkative barista.  His leads are unknowns—Paxton is cute and spunky as the nerdy, asthmatic tomboy Claire, and her general physicality is very unconventional for the female lead of a horror film.  As her counterpart Luke, Healey is the other kind of nerdy: aimless and aloof.  Rounding out West’s cast is McGillis as the acerbic, chain-smoking mystic Leanne Rease-Jones.  She brings a somewhat granola gravitas to the role, and helps transition the film from a realistic state of mind towards one that’s open to the presence of the supernatural.

West once again collaborates with cinematographer Elliot Rockett, this time shooting on 35mm film with the 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  Because this results in an inherently cinematic, somewhat modern look, West’s old-fashioned aesthetic is instead rooted in his approach to the camerawork.  The film’s obvious influence is Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980), what with its long, slow takes moving down empty hallways and parlors.  His movements are indicative of a substantially larger budget, and he utilizes various dolly and steadicam shots to add a classical touch and a sense of high production value.  He supplements this with several handheld POV shots when things get really hairy, which is true to his stylistic roots as a director.  He favors wide compositions, with a deep focus that has our eyes constantly scanning the frame in anticipation of a ghost emerging.  Returning production designer Jade Healy doesn’t need to do much in the way of set design, as their real-world location was so moody and evocative to begin with.  Rather, she works within the generous confines of the location to reinforce West’s naturalistic, subdued color palette and timeless sensibilities.

The scale of Jeff Grace’s score is expanded to match West’s visual upgrade.  He crafts a lavishly orchestral suite of cues that are appropriately creepy and suspenseful, while also playful during several moments to reiterate the several instances of comedic relief that West uses to inject levity into the proceedings.  It’s almost something like the spooky score you’d get in an early 90’s horror TV show, like Nickelodeon’s ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK?  Returning sound designer Graham Reznick really outdoes himself this time around, creating an immersive mix that plays to West’s carefully-cultivated sense of creeping dread.  When you boot up the film at home, it advises you to play it loud—this should give you a sense of how important the subtle bits & pieces of Reznick’s mix are to the overall experience.

A standout sequence concerns Luke and Claire stalking the back hallways and grand parlor rooms of the Yankee Pedlar while recording Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVPs)—aka voice recordings not present during the time of capture, but manifesting instead out of the white noise of the recording itself and commonly believed to be of supernatural origin.  West effortlessly builds suspense in this sequence with nothing but silence, leaving us hanging on the edge of our seats as we strain to hear whatever the microphone is picking up.  It’s a lo-fi, un-showy technique but its use results in some of the spookiest moments I’ve ever experienced in a horror film.

With THE INKEEPERS being West’s fifth feature film, his style has been well-established.  An old-fashioned approach guides every decision, typified by a slow, brooding pace and a great deal of importance placed on the sound mix.  Even when he’s working with high production values and a contemporary story such as this one, his old-fashioned aesthetic demands that he doesn’t rely on cheap “jump out” scares like modern horror films do.  While he does acknowledge it within THE INNKEEPERS, he appropriates it to make a mockery of audience expectations, fooling us into bracing for a shock scare but continually giving us cinematic blue balls by never delivering (until the very end, that is).

This slow pacing adds an extra dimension of creepiness to his ghosts, which are easily the most viscerally terrifying depictions of apparitions that I’ve seen on-screen.  They possess all of the menace with none of the corniness, behaving much like you would expect a malevolent supernatural entity to do.

The other important element of West’s aesthetic is his placing of the story within a singular locale.  He creates in his fictionalized Yankee Pedlar Inn an insular world that’s able to block out the cynicism of our everyday reality, and allows us to indulge in superstition and belief in the paranormal.  This signature of West’s may have emerged out of indie/no-budget necessity, but he’s truly at his best when he’s guiding us through empty, foreboding architecture.

THE INNKEEPERS is West’s biggest film yet, and its release translated to a significant amount of career exposure for the young director—not just in horror circles but the larger indie world.  He always has a home for his pictures at the South By Southwest film festival, but THE INNKEEPERS propelled him to international success for the first time with screenings at Stockholm and Melbourne.  His old-fashioned approach was ironically praised as fresh, probably because the increasingly homogenized horror genre has left fans clamoring for something new, different, and bold.  THE INNKEEPERS opened may doors for West professionally, potentially providing a new path back into studio filmmaking that would be more respectful and aware of his considerable talent and vision.  While his next feature has yet to materialize, West has kept himself very busy in the independent world by collaborating with his friends on another time-honored horror genre tradition: the anthology film.

THE INNKEEPERS is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via MPI Media Group.

Credits:

Produced by: Derek Kurll, Larry Fessenden, Peter Phok, Ti West

Written by: Ti West

Director of Photography: Eliot Rockett

Production Designer: Jade Healy

Edited by: Ti West

Sound Design: Graham Reznick

Music: Jeff Grace