By Gabe Toro | The Playlist February 1, 2012 at 2:00PM
Ti West has found a formula, and by god, he’s sticking to it. The indie helmer began in the world of micro-budgeted horror, where financial reasons necessitated a slow burn and eventual third act reveal. As his budgets have increased, his approach hasn’t changed, favoring this methodical strategy to the money-shot-driven approach by most modern horror filmmakers.
It’s admirable to see a filmmaker try to stretch, and while that built-in West strategy remains for “The Innkeepers,” he’s replaced the sense of atmosphere in favor of gentle workplace comedy. West understands bringing the frights out of the mundane, but in “The Innkeepers,” the Yankee Pedlar, a modest inn on its last weekend before closing its doors, is mostly used to convey a lived-in sense of everyday tedium.
The boyish, limber Claire (Sara Paxton) is in the middle of what her sarcastic coworker Luke (Pat Healy) describes as a “quarterlife crisis,” and, having dropped out of college, sees no future beyond the closing of the hotel. Because the inn has experienced such low traffic, the frequently irritable Luke has set up a website documenting the history of a ghost that haunts the rooms. Enlisting Claire to help him explore the hotel by tracking EVP, Luke speaks of a single ghost encounter, which has fueled her still-skeptical interest. Because the ghost seems to be the only company around, wasting hours tracking the possibly nonexistent cracks and creaks of the underworld seems to pass the time. Luke owns a laptop to explore his internet porn interests, but Claire can only retreat to the coffee shop, where the chatty barista (“Tiny Furniture” star Lena Dunham, in a spirited cameo) takes every opportunity to overshare.
“The Innkeepers” attempts to mine seriocomic ennui from Claire’s restless life, though the attempt isn’t wholly successful. Because, with a few very brief digressions, we never leave the Yankee Pedlar, and Claire never seems to have an outside life. While we see Luke’s copious amounts of pornographic internet bookmarks, Claire, a young, early twentysomething, doesn’t seem to have any friends, and makes only inconsequential references to her blandly disapproving family. When she says her “book” isn’t keeping her occupied, we wonder, what kind of books would a girl like this read?
Ultimately, her emotional trial is played for laughs, but the laughs don’t connect, given that we have no dramatic heft to her young-person-in-turmoil conflict. Much of the vaguely slapstick vibe of Luke and Claire’s sarcastic back and forth, in addition to Sara Paxton’s superficial resemblance to Alison Lohman, recalls the superior “Drag Me To Hell.” Where Sam Raimi’s macabre sense of humor is superior to West’s, so too is the film’s illustration of a casually troubled young middle class female. In the underestimated 'Drag,' Lohman’s heroine is beleaguered by everyday difficulties, but is given a fully-realized inner life in comparison to Paxton’s sheltered characterization. Ms. Paxton, a soft-skinned former child actor, has a similar bravery to Lohman in her willingness to act a fool, but her portrayal lacks dramatic depth, opting for sitcom-level reactions to her calamities when something rooted in a grounded reality would work best.
Of course, the ghost is real, and of course it’s dedicated to seeking retribution, but because this is a West film, there’s a run-up of monotony that eventually pays off in our supernatural slaughter. Of course, there are structural issues with this sort of delivery: considering our setting is a three-floor motel, and because we only see about three or four actual rooms, the station-to-station repetition of running upstairs, running downstairs, running into the basement, and then running out of the basement wears on the viewer. Moreover, the ghost story isn’t relayed in a clear and concise manner, and we’re left wondering exactly what the motivation of this ghost may be. Not that ghosts need motivation to scare, but our leads at least deserve to wonder exactly why they’re being stalked. In totally different ways, the first and second acts feel like a more grown-up “Scooby Doo” episode.
While West certainly takes his time in delivering punch lines and scares, his style does allow for actors to stretch themselves, and there are several agreeable scenes where Paxton and Healy play off each other. The two have an easy chemistry, with the jaded but zen-like Healy playing off the naïve, exasperated Claire. With her tomboyish wardrobe and his flippant distance and sarcasm, the relationship is also refreshingly sexless, making the hint of attraction a testament to the natural camaraderie between the two actors. It’s a grace note that would be welcomed in another movie, and not a film that registers minimal laughs and only perfunctory scares. [C]