THE INNKEEPERS (2011) DVD/BLU-RAY
The basic premise between haunted house and hotel movies is essentially the same, revolving around fatal tragedy and unquiet spirits. However, the claustrophobia is constricted in differing ways informed by the architecture: whereas Gothic mansions contain narrow mazes of gloom filled with nooks and crannies brimming with hidden menace, the brightly-lit avenues of hotel corridors go on forever, their empty isolation deafening. The rows of endless uniform doors belie the infinite possibilities of what may have transpired behind them. Whereas the private estate becomes a character in itself, the boarding house is by its very nature monstrously anonymous, spaces momentarily populated by fluid phantoms. It is only the end of the road for a few. Kubrick’s magisterial The Shining is the best example of the spooky hotel genre, 1408 the worst. Whilst The Yankee Pedlar of The Innkeepers cannot match the atmospheric grandeur of the Overlook, it’s a damn good alternative.
Amateur ghost-hunters Claire and Luke agree to look after the soon-to-be-boarded-up inn whilst the landlord goes away. Empty except for Gayle, a mother fleeing a domestic with her young son, and a washed-up actress attending a spiritualist convention (eccentrically played by Kelly MacGillis), they have the whole place to themselves to try and record some paranormal activity. When Claire discovers the sorry tale of Madeleine O’Malley, who hung herself when her fiancé jilted his bride-to-be on their wedding day before being locked in the wood cellar by the embarrassed owners, she begins to grow rather obsessed with making manifest acquaintance of the poor girl.
What marks The Innkeepers is its commitment to the fervent curiosity of its central character. Excellently played by Sara Paxton with a guileless warmth, Claire is a gawky adolescent who never grew up. Few friends save for computer geek Luke (whose internet research comprises such parapsychological sites as ‘Titslap Tubgirl Soup’), crippling medical condition (asthma), little ambition, less future. For her, getting evidence of Madeleine’s presence is less a “moral imperative” as she claims, but an opportunity for naïve achievement. A lot of the film’s deadpan comic relief (which becomes very welcome!) relies on her gauche social ineptitude: she tells the hotel’s horrific history to Gayle’s terrified boy with a torch unwittingly slung under her chin; when Luke comes on to her during a drinking session, she eagerly responds by dragging him to the basement to talk spectral tongue with Maddy.
This is why the film succeeds as a classically tuned, genuinely hair-raising ghost story. Whilst quick to establish affectionate empathy for this well-meaning loser, director Ti West (him of the superlative House Of The Devil) also subtly locks the audience’s consciousness into that of his character before they cannot escape. With the camera positioned either in line with Claire’s centre of gravity or from her point of view, and the soundtrack registering only what she hears, it does not take long before we are fully calibrated to her terrified perspective. Once the action picks up dreadful momentum, the tension is virtually unbearable. Heart-racing.
With Hammer’s much-vaunted Eel Marsh House running head to head against independent hotel The Yankee Pedlar in this issue’s most haunted stakes, both serve up an agreeably frightful experience. But for its unrelenting suspense and sustained style, The Innkeepers is the one to check into.
Extras: None on review copy.