Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Dreadful Decade (Part VII): The Innkeepers (2011) dir. Ti West

Logline: On the last weekend of the historic Yankee Pedlar Inn's operation as a business, front desk clerks Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) embark on a ghost hunt when not serving their few remaining guests. The two minimum wage workers hope to capture evidence of the presence of Madeline O'Malley, the hotel's famed phantasm, for fun and possible profit. But Claire is soon to discover that the spirits of the Yankee Pedlar Inn are very real, and that they have their own plans to capture her, too...

Analysis: In traditional ghost stories, ghosts aren't created by accident. Fate (or the authorial hand) pushes certain characters-- even on occasion the protagonists-- towards their haunted afterlives, bestowing upon them an existence lonelier than death. Such a fate may seem cruel and unfair, but we can't shake the feeling that these characters are marked for ghost-dom, and that they might lead more productive lives postmortem than they were able to while still breathing.

In The Innkeepers, Claire is already a sort of ghost when we meet her. Her aimlessness and twenty-something ennui places her somewhere between life (or adolescent vigor) and death (the inevitable daily grind). When, early in the film, she flees from the range of the insipid juvenile babble issuing from the mouth of a similarly aged barista (Lena Dunham), we realize that Claire has divorced herself from the concerns of young adulthood, but her inability to even comprehend a life or passion outside of her dead-end job illustrates her failure to assume the (sometimes soul-crushing) responsibilities of being an adult. At one point in the film, Luke accuses Claire of being in the throes of a "quarter-life crisis," but this is news to her: even with the inevitable closing of her place of employment mere days away, Claire hasn't given a moment's thought to her plans post-steady paycheck.

This absence of forethought on Claire's part is because she is exactly where she's supposed to be, among the other lost and purposeless spirits (a widower, an abandoned bride) haunting the Yankee Pedlar Inn. Claire has been marked by fate: as Luke notes, when trying to comfort her, "Everything happens for a reason, Claire. Nobody just winds up at Yankee Pedlar." His aren't hopeful words.

The film posits young adulthood and minimum wage work as a sort of purgatory that one can either aspire a way out of or be trapped in forever. (Though the film also acknowledges the difficulty of making anything of one's self in our busted, post-bubble economy. What exactly is one to do for a "legitimate career"? Open a hotel?) Luke is spared a ghostly existence because at least he's trying, however poorly, to achieve a level of success outside of the doomed inn. On the contrary, Claire subconsciously realizes she has no aspirations, prospects, or literally any place else to haunt, and the end of the business is, for all intents and purposes, the end of her aimless wheel-spinning.

The rotten economy leads to the demise of both Claire and the Yankee Pedlar, but it's the hotel that emerges as the major figure worth mourning. The film imparts to us lots of little intimations that the Yankee Pedlar has a real, tangible history, and that the hotel itself is actively resisting becoming obsolete, forgotten, and unoccupied (it's making new ghosts, after all). And, if we can't bring ourselves to feel sympathy for a woman unable or unwilling to pull herself up by her still-corporeal bootstraps, we can certainly lament the loss of a home for wayward souls.

Technical Merits: Separated by actual title cards, the film's chapters unfurl before us like those of the best supernatural literature: slowly but certainly, like graveworms to the corpse buffet. The Innkeepers abandons the retro style of Ti West's previous films The Roost (2005) and The House of the Devil (2009), but revels in the slow-burn horror of the latter. West's avoidance of a deliberately nostalgic style in this retro-narrative-influenced outing is appropriate, juxtaposing the lurid appeal of ancient history (the historic hotel; the classical ghost story) with the overwhelming sterility and blandness of the modern world (dispiriting economic recession; contemporary horror cinema). Thus, West keeps much of The Innkeepers snail-paced, its exquisitely framed images rolling deliberately, almost fluidly, across the screen. He allows only fleeting glimpses of the supernatural to crawl into his compositions and remind us of the gracefully sinister storytelling traditions wallpapered over by the 21st century's drudgery.

Like all effective horror films (and like very few of its contemporaries), The Innkeepers understands that true horror is not located in the repeated build-up and release of suspense. Rather, horror is generated by mood and atmosphere, by the disquieting framing of the camera or by editing that lingers serenely on the ghastliest of sights just long enough to sear them into our retinas. In this vein, West openly pokes fun at his peers and their over-reliance on build-and-release jump scares: in one scene, Luke spooks Claire with one of the many Youtube videos in which a half minute of silent anticipation is shattered by a demonic shriek and the enlarged image of some variation of Linda Blair's face. Put into comparison with the mastery of the genre's form on display in The Innkeepers, the bulk of modern horror looks roughly as complex and polished as the uploaded shock-video efforts of hypothetical Youtube user dEMonIAC94. Sure, West is rubbing other filmmakers' noses in their own laziness a little bit (even if lightheartedly), but I won't fault him for setting a higher standard.

Relevance: The Innkeepers is a little like Charles Dickens's "The Signal-Man" (1866), if you transported the latter's action from the lonely railroad tracks of England to a lonely historic inn in Connecticut. Both The Innkeepers and "The Signal-Man" are concerned with protagonists stuck in dead-end jobs, haunted by spirits of their own static lives, and ultimately consumed by their inability to extricate themselves from their situations. There's not an exact resemblance between the two works, but Ti West, The Innkeepers' writer and director, is quite obviously paying homage to the tradition of classical Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories that "The Signal-Man" is a sterling example of: quaint, melancholy tales of the relationship between fate and the supernatural.

The film's use of this classical ghost yarn form is important because of its increasing obsolescence in 21st-century horror cinema. Traditional ghost stories simply aren't feasible in our postmodern era. Look at the ghost films of recent years: Paranormal Activity (2009), Ringu (1998), Kairo (2001). Each of these films strives to place the figure of the ghost outside of its familiar territory (no more haunted manors, hotels, moors, or cemeteries) and thoroughly enmesh its existence with the most recognizable elements of modern technology (home video cameras, telephones, VHS tapes, televisions, webcams, and the Internet). The postmodern ghost transcends fixed place and lives out its afterlife digitally through our devices and media; the traditional ghost that The Innkeepers homages is stranded, rattling its chains to deaf ears while irrevocably tied to its location. And the fact is that America's haunted locations are dying. Demolitions, re-modelings, and renovations are eradicating the country's architectural history, replacing buildings of character with antiseptic McMansions, planned communities, and strip malls. At the time of The Innkeepers' release in 2011, Phil Coldiron wrote, "who could imagine a ghost story set in a Courtyard by Marriott?" No one can, and that's why the majority of traditional ghost films produced in the last decade or so (The Others [2001], The Orphanage [2007], The Devil's Backbone [2001], The Awakening [2011]) have been period pieces set in foreign countries, alleviating our difficulty in imagining a contemporary America with standing buildings old enough to have a history.

The ghosts of yore dematerialize with the shuttering of their local haunts, and this is a reality worth mourning. In the for-real operational Yankee Pedlar Inn (est. 1891) and its ghostly inhabitants (both "real" and imagined), West finds dual last bastions worth celebrating, and his film's intelligent drawing of parallels between the demise of historic architecture and the growing irrelevancy of ghost stories demonstrates his fondness for and eagerness to preserve both, if only temporarily. Sadly, but appropriately, he ends The Innkeepers with the image of a door being shoved closed, both literally and figuratively. We could claim a spirit's forceful push was the cause, but the handprints smudged on the frame are our own.


  1. Best last sentence in a review, ever. Ever.

    I wanted to leave it at that but I was afraid you'd think I was being snarky. I am not. That last sentence fits the last scene of the film perfectly. Well done sir.

    1. Thanks so much, Brad!

      Writer real talk: I wasn't totally confident in that particular sentence/sentiment, so I'm pleased to have it validated.

  2. I'm sure I've said this to you, you've heard it on the show, both and possibly more: I love The House Of The Devil. The poster hangs above the fireplace and there's another poster in the hall. I have the bluray, the dvd and the VHS. But I'll be the first to concede that The Innkeepers is probably a better film. It feels more personal to me. Which sounds like an oxymoron considering my first 2-3 sentences above.

    You have a very scholarly way of writing without condescension. Readable while smart. It's a tricky balance. I stand behind your last sentence. And all of the review that precedes it.