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Entries in Innkeepers/The [2011] (1)

Sunday
Jan012012

The Innkeepers (2011)

Haunt Con

Early last week, Ti West asked fans not to pirate his latest film, The Innkeepers--which came to Video On Demand Thursday, more than a month ahead of a limited theatrical release. After having paid ten bucks to watch it from my couch, I can honestly say the director needs to develop a stronger argument against illegal downloading and distribution.

I should clarify: I don't advocate piracy under any circumstances. But if West believes people should pay for movies, it's his responsibility to give them something worth paying for (not legally, of course, but in terms of the artistic/social contract that I just made up). As someone who loves The House of the Devil and the criminally ignored Cabin Fever 2, I relied very heavily on faith and good will to get me through The Innkeepers.* For newcomers to West's work, I can only imagine the confusion and cheated feelings that lie ahead.

The movie poster would have you believe that this is a haunted-hotel story; the last fifteen minutes are, for sure, but the hour-and-a-quarter leading up to it is like Clerks--minus the colorful customers and witty dialogue. Sarah Paxton and Pat Healy star as Claire and Luke, the two remaining staff members of the soon-to-be-closed Yankee Pedlar Inn. On the last weekend of operation, their clients include a mother hiding her son from an abusive husband, a former film and television star whose new calling involves crystals and spiritual awakening, and an elderly man determined to stay the night in the room he and his wife shared on their honeymoon.

Claire and Luke bide their time amusing each other with Internet videos and developing a Web site for paranormal-activity enthusiasts. In the wee hours, Claire wanders the downstairs rooms with EVP equipment in the hopes of capturing evidence of the ghost who supposedly haunts the inn. No points for guessing that the creepy piano in the parlor starts playing itself, or that the recorder picks up the muffled cries of a dead woman. And if you think the kooky former celebrity might have a connection to the netherworld after all, congrats on seeing at least two of the five thousand movies like this one.

What's remarkable about The Innkeepers is how unremarkable it is. The actors do really well conveying both the late-night snark of bored hipsters and the world-weary defensiveness of faded celeb glory, but the ghost part of this ghost story is heart-breakingly vanilla. It doesn't help that West tries to mix things up with comedy by having Claire and Luke play pranks on each other. I get that these are the stupid distractions of bored characters, but the audience shouldn't feel that way about the distractions themselves.

I was also surprised by the utter lack of creepy atmosphere. Until the tense but ultimately unsatisfying climax, The Innkeepers feels like one of the early-80s spook shows Nickelodeon used to run. The House of the Devil proved that West can terrify an audience by simply showing someone sitting in a creepy house, so to see a similar storyline come up short is a major let-down. This movie would make a great forray into more adult notions of horror for pre-teens who are used to excessive gore and ADD-editing--but for adults, the only suspense will come in hoping against hope that there's more to the story than a grade-school production of The Shining (complete with a closing push-in on a wall-mounted picture).

The one thing that sparked my interest was the psychic character, Leanne Rease-Jones, played by Kelly McGillis. A shrink could have a field day with West, whose screenplay draws uncanny comparisons to real-life actress (and House of the Devil co-star) Dee Wallace. The star of Cujo and The Howling has, in recent years, become a teacher of spirituality. I don't know much about it, but at conventions she sells crystals and consciousness-expansion books right alongside 8 x 10 glossies of herself posing with E.T.**

Claire and Luke are relentless in their critique of Leanne, calling her a washed-up phony clinging to relevance. But the movie finds her to be absolutely correct in her assertions about what's going on at the inn. One must question, then, West's true feelings about spirituality, celebrity, and Dee Wallace. A good chunk of this film--the compelling chunk--is like a love-hate letter written to a former co-worker, and I'd kill for a chance to watch these two hash out their issues on camera (assuming there are any, and that The Innkeepers isn't a purely fabricated work). At least that would carry some suspense and an unexpected outcome with it.

Again, this is a qualifier. If you knew nothing about Wallace's career, the Leanne storyline wouldn't hold any significance beyond the script's machinations. You'd just be left with a mostly atmosphere-free story about bitter clerks sitting in an empty building, waiting for something to happen. Getting back to my original point about piracy, this is exactly the kind of thing that hard-working horror fans don't need to go out of their way to spend money on. It's better left to Netflix Instant Watch.

As a huge Ti West fan, it hurts to say these things--especially since he needs asses in seats to continue making movies. But The Innkeepers is for completists only, a botched exercise whose supporters will pay twice for the writer/director's mistakes.

*I also relied on a fifteen-minute cat-nap at the half-way mark--which, depending on your point of view, is either a major perk or a major flaw in the Video On Demand system.

**This isn't a dig, merely a fact. From the few interactions I've had with Dee, she's a lovely lady who doesn't push her beliefs on anyone--but who is eager to discuss them once invited to do so.