Ti West, the 34-year-old writer-director of The Innkeepers, has spent the past several years steadily toiling his way through the ranks of horror filmmaking. His little-seen apprenticeship cheapies (The Roost, Trigger Man) led to a disowned, freelance gross-out job (Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever) and then finally a name-above-the-title breakthrough with 2009's The House of the Devil, which showed a quantum leap in West's control over his material and proved the thesis that, to mangle a Godardism, all you need to make a scary movie is a girl and an old building.
The Innkeepers, another marked refinement of technique, which runs with the same idea, takes place almost entirely on the premises of the Yankee Pedlar, a three-story, turn-of-the-last-century hotel located on what might be the Main Street of any smallish, down-on-its-heels Northeastern city. It's the Pedlar's last weekend of operation, and the skeleton crew of Clairemin (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) is sleeping over, trading shifts at the front desk. Since the hotel is nearly empty, however, Claire and Luke devote most of their attention not to the guests but to investigating supernatural goings-on in the hotel. With a mic cued to EVP frequencies,the pair tries to collect solid evidence of haunting via suicide case Madeline O'Malley, whose ghost Luke claims he has seen wandering the halls.
West's Devil, which followed its female protagonist, Samantha, through an evening of house-sitting, created rising tension out of banal incidents (discordant family photos, unopened doors, a pizza delivery) that weren't particularly menacing by themselves but, imbued with sinister, uncanny implications, made for a suffocating slow burn. This was fueled largely by a viewer's teasing knowledge of horrors just outside Samantha's view, a privileged vantage that Innkeepers does away with, as though West is seeing how many support pegs he can knock away while still holding up a viewer's attention.
In a genre lately given to gluttonous effects, West is the rare minimalist. Here, our almost complete POV identification with Claire is established early: When she puts on headphones, the soundtrack becomes muffled. (One of the few exceptions is made in order to avoid showing something horrible.) Innkeepers stretches Devil's withholding further, creating a blank canvas of nonevents against which the slightest incident, such as a piano key that pounds down by itself, takes on an undue significance and becomes something monumental.
Of course, something eventually does happen, but the throttling shift of The Innkeepers' last act would be too little, too late if West hadn't already found traction in his movie's routine world. Paxton, the fine-featured, dimple-chinned blonde who managed to shine through the murk of the remade Last House on the Left and Shark Night 3-D, gives a performance that's spunky and charming without being cloying. (Although her tomboyish adorability challenges the premise of Claire being abandoned at work for the weekend — you can't imagine this single girl behind a desk for any amount of time without collecting a dozen guys who'd find any excuse to hang around.)
The dynamic between Claire and Luke is clearly written, without overpunctuation: She's straight out of high school, teenage sulkiness moving directly into an adult's no-prospects despair. Luke is maybe 10 years older and 10 years sadder, camouflaging a hopeless crush on Claire with affected older-brotherly forbearance, while she blithely overlooks it with innocently cruel obliviousness. (Luke's prospects are made clear in a single reaction shot where Claire wrinkles her nose upon catching a glimpse of his sagging tighty-whities.)
The Innkeepers also has a good eye for the details of crummy shift work, including a bit of nicely played physical comedy involving humping trash into a Dumpster, which will be horribly familiar to service-industry vets.
In another scene, Claire and Luke, beer-buzzed and bored, act out a burlesque of the hotel's ghosts, to exorcise the tension. This bit of nose-thumbing into the dark recalls a similar defiant release in Devil, where star Jocelin Donahue Jazzercised her way through foreboding corridors in a safe bubble of Walkman noise.
It's this youthful denial of vulnerability that makes West's slow-sidling haunted-house movies work. He understands the kidding way that his audience approaches horror and seems to play along with that jokey imperviousness — until rudely tearing up the all-in-good-fun contract, gouging us with actual pain. The Innkeepers is so loaded with false scares and cautious treading toward nothing that when freshly spilled blood suddenly flashes on-screen, the shock is really alarming, a return to the scrambling, clambering fear of death that is at the center of these silly horror movies.
THE INNKEEPERS | Written and directed by TI WEST | Magnet Releasing | Downtown Independent