Say what you will for the Paranormal Activity films (and I happen to rather like them myself, but that’s neither here nor there), but one thing they’ve done is make it acceptable to tell a good, old-fashioned ghost story again. And old-fashioned is the key word (well, okay, key compound word) here, because writer-director-editor Ti West’s 2011 indie horror offering ( I understand it was given a limited theatrical run, but it sure never made it to my neck of the woods) The Innkeepers is definitely a throwback in many ways.
For one thing, it’s pretty light on the gore and heavy on the atmospherics (and for atmospherics you simply can’t beat a story set in a real New England bed-and-breakfast-type establishment, in this case Connecticut’s Yankee Pedlar Inn, on its last weekend of operation before the owner shutters the pace for good) and character development, with a heavy dose of light-hearted comedy thrown in for good measure. The back-and-forth banter between lead characters Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), two college dropouts turned bellhops/front desk attendants/luggage porters/whatever else the inn’s absentee owner needs them to be who decide to avail themselves of the opportunity to become webcam ghost hunters before their supposedly haunted place of employment closes its doors to the public is consistently fun and engaging throughout, and the end result is one of the most truly personable horror flicks in far too long. You genuinely find yourself caring about these people and not wanting anything bad to happen to either one of them.
The other principal person of interest here is one Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis —yes you can officially stop asking “whatever happened to —?”), a washed-up sitcom actress turned new age “mystic seer” who might know more about the restless spirits wandering the halls of the Yankee Pedlar — but then again, might just be full of shit. Her interplay with Paxton’s star-struck Claire is likewise engaging and pitch-perfect from start to finish and never feels either forced or belabored; the two just seem to have a natural chemistry together on screen that’s downright, dare I say it, even infectious at times.
So — small cast, simple set-up, ratchet up the tension incrementally to take us from slacker-duo-comedy to pleasantly-creepy haunted hotel story, throw in a few cheap scares, and you’ve got yourself the recipe for a 70s-style winner on your hands. In one of the two commentary tracks on Dark Sky Films’ newly-released DVD/Blu-Ray of the film (there are two, one featuring Ti West with various members of the crew, the other pairing him with stars Paxton and Healy — the other extra on offer being the requisite “making-of” featurette, in case you were wondering), West mentions how he wanted the opening credits sequence, featuring time-lapse photography of the inn throughout the years, to have an old-school, made-for-TV horror-movie feel to it, but in truth the entire production maintains that exact same aesthetic from the word “go,” and brings back fond memories of Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot network mini-series, Dark Night Of The Scarecrow, and (the original) Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark. Groundbreaking? Hardly. Fun? Oh, most definitely.
All of which isn’t to say that The Innkeepers doesn’t have its flaws, some of which are even pretty glaring — the ending, particularly, feels a bit rushed and frankly falls pretty flat in its attempt to send chills up the spine, and a couple of the plot “revelations” are about as surprising as a combo meal lunch at McDonald’s, but that’s not the end of the world — it’s comforting familiarity that West (whose previous effort, The House Of The Devil, really didn’t impress me in the least) is aiming for here, a love letter to the kind of TV tales of the supernatural he undoubtedly grew up with, and in that respect he hits all the notes on his admittedly derivative, but nevertheless quite pleasing, song-sheet more or less exactly right.
In summation, then, while it’s certainly more than fair to say that we’ve seen all this done before, it’s been a long time — hell, too long — since anybody combined these familiar ingredients together so successfully. The Innkeepers is a rare beast indeed — a horror movie that leaves a wide, beaming smile on your face as the end credits roll. Sure, it’s a new film, but it feels like you’ve just spent a pleasant evening catching up with an old friend — one you didn’t realize how much you’d missed until you saw them again.