Thursday, February 9, 2012

Movie Review: The Innkeepers

The Innkeepers *** ½
Directed by: Ti West.
Written by: Ti West.
Starring: Sara Paxton (Claire), Pat Healy (Luke), Alison Bartlett (Gayle, Angry Mom), Jake Ryan (Boy), Kelly McGillis (Leanne Rease-Jones), Lena Dunham (Barista), George Riddle (Old Man), Brenda Cooney (Madeline O'Malley).

In horror movies, like in real estate, it’s all about location, location, location. Get the right location for a horror movie, use it properly to create a spooky, scary, creepy atmosphere, and you’re half way to creating a great horror movie. Ti West does that in The Innkeepers – using an old school small, town hotel that seems like it would feel at home in a Stephen King story. Then he does one better by making his heroine, Claire (Sara Paxton), so believable, so sympathetic, so sweet and lovable. Most horror movies that don’t work, fail because you don’t care what happens to the human characters, because the filmmakers are so concentrated on the supernatural elements, the ghosts, the killers, the zombies, the vampires, whatever, that we never really care what happens to the humans. They are just there to be killed. In The Innkeepers, you really do care what happens – and that’s why The Innkeepers works so damn well.

It seems to me that pretty much every horror writer in history has written a haunted hotel story – and half of them have been turned into movies. And yet, there always seems room for more in the genre. The Innkeepers is not overly original. It is about the last weekend that a small town hotel is going to open before shutting its doors forever. The third floor has already been closed off, and the hotel only has three guests – a mother and her son, punishing the woman’s husband for the weekend, and Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), an actress turned psychic in town for a convention. Later, an old man will show up and want to rent the room he spent his honeymoon in 50 years before – on the closed third floor. The staff consists of two people – Luke (Pat Healy), a nerd with a website up telling the story of Madeline O’Malley, a woman who years before killed herself in the hotel, and is said to still be haunting the hotel all these years later. Luke says he has seen the ghost several times, but wouldn’t you know it, he never has his camera on him. He has convinced Claire, who he is clearly in love with, and the two plan on getting real evidence on this last weekend.

There are two keys that make The Innkeepers successful. The first is the hotel itself. Apparently, this is a real hotel, and West found the perfect one for his purposes. It doesn’t look like it has been renovated in years – it still has old school fixtures and wallpaper. It is also huge, providing many dark nooks and crannies, many chances for echoes and dark, empty corridors. It is a perfect hotel for a movie like this. The other key is Paxton, who is wonderful as Claire. She is beautiful, of course, but she seems so sweet, so down to earth, lovable and relatable. Most beautiful blondes in horror movies have no real purpose beyond looking pretty (which apparently, is what Paxton was asked to do in last year’s Shark Night), but here, she has to carry the movie. The movie is a slow burn, gradually building its suspense and terror scene to scene, and for much of it, we remain involved because we love Claire so much. It should also be mentioned that Pat Healy is also quite good as Luke – yes, he’s kind of pathetic, but he’s likably pathetic.

Ti West excited horror fans a few years ago with The House of the Devil, his 1980s horror throwback sadly unseen by me (after watching this film, I plan to correct that soon). While The Innkeepers is far from an original horror film, it is so well made, so well-acted, so genuinely scary and surprising, even with its lack of originality, that I didn’t really care. The end of the movie is not only terrifying, but heartbreaking as well. How often can a horror movie claim that?

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