You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, by David Bax
A few years ago, Ti West made a film called The House of the Devil that was an homage to American horror films of the 1980’s. In many ways, West’s new film, The Innkeepers, feels vaguely like a throwback itself. To call it such, though, would be to minimize its achievements. The Innkeepers is a vivaciously contemporary horror film, constructed with a mature sense of classicism.
Chronicling the last operating weekend of a Connecticut inn, the story revolves around the establishment’s only remaining employees, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy). Also along for the ride is a former actor turned medium named Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis). Luke is an amateur ghost hunter and Claire his willing cohort. The inn, called the Yankee Pedlar, is rumored to be haunted and the pair have made it their mission to find evidence before the doors are locked for good.
West and his cinematographer, Eliot Rockett, present this miniscule and closely observed tale in a scope aspect ratio. The choice is a wise one, as West uses the wide frame to allow your eyes to search for the threat you’re sure must be coming. With all this space, you’re certain you’ll see it in time. There’s a constant tension provided by this method, instilling even casual dialogue scenes with the sense that something is waiting just out of frame.
Such a deft use of the camera is indicative of West’s assured reliance on practical tools. There’s no CGI here. Instead, we are reminded that the old ways remain quite potent. The film employs a healthy dose of jump scares, which are overused in the genre at large but here are earned and vital to the story’s telling, even when they’re red herrings. The real testaments to West’s skill, though, are the sequences where he builds to what seems like a crescendo of tingling dread and then holds it for far longer than you expect. Claire and Luke’s basement séance, for instance, grabs hold of you and hangs on until you want to stand up and run almost as bad as one of the characters does.
All of this only holds true because of those characters, though. There are long stretches of The Innkeepers wherein nothing that can be described as horrific happens at all. Instead, we are given a knowing look at an unlikely friendship made not only believable but thoroughly charming by the film’s two leads. Healy is hilarious (and he plays drunk in a funnier and more convincing way than any of the four leads in Roman Polanski’s recent Carnage) and Paxton plays Claire not as a type but as an individual. You root for her because you relate to the universality of her specificity. Her performance does tip, from time to time, into the realm of the overly cutesy but she understands which moments truly count and she shows up for them.
In addition to those self-consciously winsome moments from Paxton, the film is not without other problems. Most of them, thankfully, come early on and then disperse. West is in a hurry to get the set-up out of the way and focus on the characters and the situation so the film’s first act is a bit heavy with expositional chunks of dialogue. Things along the lines of “We need to get some evidence of ghosts this weekend before the hotel closes for good” are spoken. After that’s behind us, we are only left with the problem that almost inevitably plagues all haunted house movies. Namely, the fact that they could always just run away like any normal person would do but they don’t. And it’s obviously and especially foolish to continue going down into the fucking basement but they do.
Fortunately, West has undertaken to do more than simply scare us. He’s describing a precise time in a person’s life, when they are too old for the responsibilities of children (school, parents) but have yet to accept the responsibilities of adulthood. Luke’s age is never made clear but he’s certainly older than Claire. Perhaps he’s still at the hotel while insisting he’s working on a website (most of which is “under construction”) because he got to that point and he decided to settle there. For Claire, the closing of the inn means it’s time for her to face that same decision. When McGillis’ character casually asks her, “What do you do?”, her stymied look speaks volumes. The hotel setting is helpful as a metaphor here. Claire must decide if she’s just a guest at this place or a resident like Luke. Both of our leads are rich characters, to be sure, but this is Claire’s story.
More than fifteen years after Wes Craven’s Scream, postmodern self-awareness is nothing new to horror films. Here, though, that sensibility is not thrust into the spotlight. It is simply a part of the tapestry, not only of the work but of the characters. They are sympathetic and they are very funny, not in the way that characters in movies are but in the way that people are. These two people just happen to exist in one of the scariest movies I’ve seen in a while.