The Innkeepers is the latest film from director, Ti West. West first hit my radar a few years ago with his genre subverting film, House of the Devil. That movie displayed a very important understanding of a much ignored element of the horror genre. What element, you ask? Atmosphere! Atmosphere is paramount to this genre, something it would seem most modern horror film makers have either forgotten or don’t understand. How an environment, or world, is presented is just as important as what happens inside it, especially in the horror genre. It sets up expectations, and gives itself opportunities to subvert them. It can trick us, and take advantage of our assumptions. I would argue that is what the best horror films do. Make us look left when the “monsters” are on the right.
The story of The Innkeepers is seemingly simple, and pretty cliche. The Yankee Pedlar Inn is in it’s last weekend of operation. The staff has been stripped down to only Luke and Claire, our protagonists. The guests are few and far between, and there isn’t a whole lot for the employees to do. They are more or less holding down the fort, if you will. So, our main characters fill their time in the hotel by engaging in their hobby, paranormal investigation. The Yankee Pedlar is supposedly haunted by a women who killed herself in one of the rooms after being stood up on her wedding day, and this being their last chance to find evidence, get a little bit more serious with their efforts. They don’t have much for equipment. An audio recorder with a microphone attached, a consumer level video camera, but they make do. Luke even has started a simple blog website to chronicle their meager findings. So, that’s the basic premise of the story. Like I said before. Not the most original stuff in the world, but what lies beneath the surface is where it get’s intriguing.
Claire and Luke are what you might consider slackers. They come off as lazy and slightly whiny, but are not without their charms. Claire is a “goofy” girl in her early twenties. She’s aimless, ambition-less, and maybe even a little dumb. Luke is an “ironic” guy in his thirties. He has the passive aggressive tendencies of some one who has worked in the service industry for too long, and thinks that they are some how above it. He combats his reality giving mental state with a dry wit and attitude that reminded me of Bill Murray in Ghostbusters. The characters come off as if they are in a type of stasis, or holding pattern as far as their lives are concerned. These characters seemingly have no lives outside of the inn. They exist in a vacuum, and the film hints that this vacuum isn’t relegated to it’s running time. Their only purpose in life seems to be working at the inn, goofing off with each other, and looking for signs of the paranormal. They, like the ghosts they are looking for, have limited purpose; and again, just like the ghosts, that purpose doesn’t take them beyond the doors of The Yankee Pedlar.
About a third of the way through the film, Luke mentions that after the inn closes it will be turned into a parking lot. It’s not clear whether or not this is more of his dry humor, or if it’s the reality of the situation, but I feel it’s an important part of the subtext. If your life, or after-life for that matter, is defined by a place, then what happens when that place is no longer there? It’s an interesting thought. I think a lot of people, for better or worse, have this dilemma. Too many of us are defined by the places we live and work, and considering that, we are not unlike so many ghosts confined to their surroundings. This is Claire’s predicament. When Claire is asked by one of the guests what her life plans are she doesn’t have an answer. She’s never really thought about it, and is even a little uncomfortable with the topic being brought up. A little later in the film, she has another interaction with the same guest right after she records a piano playing by itself. It’s the middle of the night and the guest comes out to complain about the noise, and Claire confronts her about the earlier instance when the guest asked about her ambition in life. She says that this is her purpose in life. This is what she is meant to do. Furthering the idea of her “need” for the inn and spirits within. She “needs” these things because she has nothing with out them. There is another scene early that hints at this. Claire goes out for coffee, and while at the coffee shop the barista opens up to her about some relationship problems she’s having with her boyfriend. Claire doesn’t know what to do and is visibly uncomfortable by this human interaction. The next scene implies that she left the coffee shop probably in the middle of the barista’s story. This may not be the most realistic instance, but I think it was included in the movie to drive home Claire’s disconnect to the world outside the inn. Claire has no time for the living. Actually, a better way to put it would be to say Claire has no desire to make time for the living.
The film is of the “slow burn” variety. It takes it’s time setting up character and atmosphere. To some, that translates to boring, but the writing and performances always keep you interested, and give good incentive to stick around to see what happens next. The real victory of this movie is that there are multiple explanations as to what is really going on, and the best part is that they are all valid! There is enough evidence to support multiple theories using the same evidence to support any given number conclusions. That’s what over all I find really fascinating about this movie. It is not didactic with it’s revelations. It really has to do with the personal disposition of the viewer as to what the evidence suggests. In my experience with storytelling across all media, this is some what of a rarity, and was really pleasantly surprised when I realized this.
The ideas present in this movie aren’t big. They are small, personal, and ultimately about some universal truths about life. How we define ourselves as people, and sometimes the danger of our choices. I can’t say this is a movie for everyone. Some people will see it as pointless and boring, but if you are a discerning viewer who enjoys subtext and atmosphere, I think this a great modern example of a simple ghost story told well.