Ever since Ti West has entered the horror scene, the filmmaker is fast becoming an unsung auteur. After 2009’s respectably creepy slow-burner, “The House of the Devil,” reclaimed a 1970s-80s horror tapestry, and “Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever” of the same year was disowned like a bad-seed child by the maker himself, the writer/director/editor is back on his triple-threat game. That said, “The Innkeepers” is an old-fashioned, entertainingly spooky treat that’s more funhouse than bloodbath.
Over the last weekend of business at Connecticut’s Yankee Pedlar Inn, co-workers Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are the last of the staff. While they tend to the very few guests checking into rooms, they hope to catch some paranormal phenomena in the 100-year-old hotel. The ghost of a woman named Madeline O’Malley supposedly haunts the building after being jilted and committing suicide. Luke confesses to have had contact with Madeline before, but Claire wants more proof than video clips of doors closing. One of the few hotel guests, Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), an ex-sitcom actress looked up to by Claire, has turned to spiritualism, and her sage know-how might come in handy with the hotel’s spirits.
Paxton, presented as a slender tomboy, thrives in her most offbeat role to date as Claire. Healy, an invaluable choice for deadpan sarcasm, is just right as Luke. Together, these two have an amusing, playful rapport even for being just work friends. Claire and Luke feel like real, believable characters, both having dropped out of college. They don’t take their job too seriously and find ways to entertain themselves behind the front desk. Even if her “Top Gun” days are over, McGillis has finally found her niche in genre efforts (beginning with “Stake Land” from earlier this year), adding substance in the part of Leanne. Shot in the real Connecticut hotel where West and his crew stayed while shooting “The House of the Devil,” the film prospers on its outwardly charming but sizably spooky location. Once that groundwork is laid, West and his crew enhance the atmosphere with the eerily immersive score, rich sound design, and sharp cinematography of all the spaces inside the Yankee Pedlar.
“The Innkeepers” doesn’t spring its scares on you all at once but gradually, carefully, and not without good, character-based humor. West has a way of handling laughs with tension to give it some levity, and yet the balancing act always feels organic. The filmmaker also captures the mundane inactivity of the Pedlar Inn and the self-examination of both Claire and Luke. There’s a quirky, funny scene where a grunting, out-of-breath Claire make several attempts to hurl a hefty bag of garbage into a dumpster. And then later one scene in the basement, where we don’t even see the ghostly entity, things get undeniably hairy. No CGI or special effects are noticeable here, just good ‘ol cinematic craft with the use of pacing and apprehension. It’s spine-tingling fun for a long time, as we share a front-row seat with Claire, but its uncompromising conclusion is still a letdown. More to the point, there is no real conclusion, but mostly, West tells a solid haunted-hotel tale for the campfire.
100 min., rated R.