The Innkeepers is the fourth film by writer/director Ti West - who's quickly become a cult hero in the horror scene - and I feel like I must start any commentary on the film by stating that this is easily West's most fast-paced film. That's not to say West's new tale of terror wants to be one of Michael Bay's blockbusters, it's more of a statement to denote that he's starting to move at a pace that most audiences will be comfortable with. That probably makes The Innkeepers his most accessible film to the masses thus far, but it doesn't mean West's losing his eye for building fantastic tension.
In some ways, The Innkeepers signifies a step forward for West. One of my favorite things about his last film - The House of the Devil, which I've lauded as my favorite horror film of the last decade - was the relationship he built between the lead character and her best friend during the first half of the film. The Innkeepers is built around a similarly natural and realistic relationship between two hotel employees, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), who are charged with observing the final days of business at The Yankee Pedlar, an old school hotel that's alleged to be haunted. While West's first three films seemed to slip into long sequences without dialogue - a technique that generally served its purpose by drawing us in to the lead characters' fears - The Innkeepers manages to create similar tension while keeping the characters' relationship in the forefront of the film. This focus on the characters and their interactions has several positive effects on the film. The relationship between the leads - who share a drive for paranormal research - adds a surprising amount of humor to the film, and yet it also adds to the tension of the film when Claire is on her own and we already know just how frail she is emotionally and physically.
I mean no disrespect to Healy, who gives a very good performance in the film, but Paxton's performance as Claire is something of a revelation. The 23 year-old actress turned the heads of horror fans when she co-starred in the remake of The Last House on the Left, but her turn in The Innkeepers will certainly go a long way toward establishing her as an actress who can carry a film. I'm often most impressed when actors/actresses can play a "normal" character (it seems Hollywood sells "normal" in a sugar coated format far too often), and Paxton - who spent much of her early career in sugary teen films - really sells out in the name of the film. The miniature actress seems to be a natural as the college drop out who struggles with asthma and low aspirations, and she brings the same kind of charm that House of the Devil lead Jocelin Donahue brought to that film.
And it's Paxton's charismatic performance that leads the film's biggest successes, which come when the film's terrors begin to prey on Claire's frailty. Going into the details of the film's haunting certainly would be a lame move on my part, so I'll simply tell you that I liked the psychological aspect of the film's story more than the supernatural side of it all. I had a brief argument with myself at the end of the film, because I think a case could be made for differing interpretations of the final scenes. None of this mental rumination would have occurred if Paxton hadn't portrayed Claire as an impressionable and overzealous young woman, and in my mind the film capitalized on the performance perfectly.
Aside from the terrific lead performance, West's film has plenty of tense moments where the director shows off the same approach he brought to House of the Devil. We see something, then we don't see something, and then we wait for something to happen, and then we repeat. It sounds typical and cliche - and I do think of the film's scares will look pretty standard to most horror fans - but West's ability to build tension again powers his film to success.
I wasn't as crazy about The Innkeepers as I hoped I'd be when the end credits first rolled, but it's stuck with me in the day since my viewing ended. I might have expected too much from West as he followed up House of the Devil, but The Innkeepers deserves praise on its own. It's a fun horror film with a surprising dose of comedy that compliments the tense scenes well. West has a terrific feel for horror, and when you combine that with the fine performances, you've got a real winner.