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The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry
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The Innkeepers (Ti West, 2011)
If he hasn’t quite proven himself to be the next great horror auteur that some have predicted, director Ti West has nonetheless impressed with his output to date with a series of deliberately paced, extremely atmospheric films. The Innkeepers, his latest, continues his trend of mining the genre’s rich past to create contemporary frights. Superficially recalling bygone haunted house stories such as The Changeling, the film builds slowly toward a predictable, if satisfying, conclusion.
What most distinguishes The Innkeepers, however, is not its parade of scares (indeed, it’s never all that terrifying), but instead the expert way that it makes its slow accumulation of dread feel almost pleasant. Set almost entirely in a gigantic Connecticut inn that is in its last weekend of operation, the film follows two desk clerks and would-be paranormal investigators (Sara Paxton and Pat Healy) as they investigate the hotel’s haunted past. Although the hotel has very few guests, The Innkeepers takes on the feel of a “hangout” movie as it unfolds. The pointless routine of the characters’ work life is conveyed with no small amount of good-natured comedy, and the likeable performances of the small cast amplify the feeling that these are characters that we’d like to get to know better. The tone, although peppered with supernatural hijinks, is often closer to that in an easygoing comedy like Empire Records than the ominous dread of something like The Shining.
West’s careful handling of The Innkeepers ensures that its overfamiliar plot becomes something of an asset. Haunted house films are such well-trodden territory, that he is freed up to focus on the characterizations of his slacker protagonists. That little of incident happens for a long stretch of the film feels less like a delay from the eventual climax than an examination of young lives in cheerful, if aimless, stasis. One wishes that West had more emphatically drawn connections between his young heroine’s sense of purposeless and the frustration that the inn’s ghosts feel, but parallels unmistakably are there.
The Innkeepers, much like West’s The House of the Devil, feels almost deliberately minor. The pleasures here are small, but sure to be resonant for horror film fans. The effortless way that West advances his plot is commendable, and the performances he gets from his cast (especially Paxton, who seems like a find) are refreshingly natural. Because of its relaxed nature The Innkeepers seems likely to become a cult favorite in its own right, easily rewatchable and warmly recalled.