With each successive film he makes, director Ti West further cements his status as the contemporary horror auteur.  West understands that horror doesn’t come from nonstop blood-and-guts or percussive jump scares—it’s the anticipation, that if knowing evil is lurking just out of sight is bad enough, waiting for it to strike can be so much worse.  In films like The Roost, Trigger Man, and House of the Devil, West’s refusal to break suspense put him alongside such masters as John Carpenter, Alfred Hitchcock, and Roman Polanski.  He’s really that good.

And The Innkeepers may be his finest film.  The story of two hotel employees (Sara Paxton and Pat Healy) investigating their supposedly-haunted Yankee Pedlar Inn, the movie feels like an extension of House of the Devil—we get eighty-or-so minutes of nothing (agonizing, terrifying nothing) before all hell breaks loose in the last fifteen minutes—but the scares are richer and more shocking because of the interplay between West’s leads.

Paxton and Healy’s characters aren’t dogged paranormal investigators (far from it, in fact); they’re just misfits looking to pass the time in the final days before the hotel shuts down forever.  Anyone who’s ever worked in menial labor will recognize the dynamic— the apathetic verbal sparring, the shallow intimacy that grows between people who only share a job in common.

Long before the supernatural even presents itself, it’s clear we’re in purgatory—both protagonists are slumming, vocationally speaking.  You can tell that Healy’s Luke took this job in high school because of the hipster status it offered—haunted houses are so ironic—but now that he’s closing on forty, whatever cred he had has dissipated into something tragic and cynical.

And Paxton’s recent college-drop-out Claire is in danger of making the same mistake.  The film taps into this rich vein of millennial angst—working at the inn offers Claire the illusion that she can avoid seeking greater direction, but then she looks at Luke and sees the future.  There’s a very real, very existential threat: when the Yankee Pedlar closes, Claire and Luke will be forced to exit stasis and consider the next step.  Ghost hunting, by comparison, seems so much less scary.

These moods give The Innkeepers a far more human dimension, and credit must go to West’s screenplay for never explicitly over-emphasizing his heroes’ ennui.  Their feelings stay subtext, subtle motivators behind Paxton and Healy’s naturalistic, funny performances.

We’re so invested in Luke and Claire as people that we almost dread their eventual exploration of the inn—this is, after all, a horror film, and nothing good can come to those servicing it.  But West breaks us in slowly.  When Claire and Luke first start snooping around, the mood is light, like the way children might play hide-and-seek outside at night—the characters are so keyed up that they don’t need ghosts to scare one another.

Then things turn.  Again, what we don’t see is scarier than what we do, with West’s staging and sound designer Graham Reznick’s aural jolts playing all sorts of tricks with our perception.  I thought of Robert Wise’s The Haunting more than once, and of Jack Clayton’s The Innocents—West isn’t reinventing the wheel but rather giving a tired genre new life (he even dusts off that hoariest of ghost-movie clichés—the wizened psychic—and makes it work, thanks to Kelly McGillis’ wonderful performance).  And always, the tension bubbles.

When West finally lets the mood boil over—let’s just say the unseen makes its presence known in the worst way—the scares come at an unrelenting pace.  Some have criticized The Innkeepers for backloading all the “good stuff,” but for me, that delay is part of the fun.  West cares enough to make us care; he makes us like his characters, he draws out the suspense interminably, watches us squirm, and then, he drops the hammer.  God love Tom Petty, but he got it wrong.  The waiting isn’t the hardest part—it’s the best part.

While The Innkeepers doesn’t premiere theatrically until February 3rd, it is now available through iTunes as well as through some on-demand cable services.  I cannot recommend it enough; watch it at home, and spare yourself the inflated ticket prices and text-happy teenyboppers.


Culture Movie Review: THE INNKEEPERS Provides Slow-Burning, Terrifying Scares