JUNE 19, 2011
By the time The Innkeepers and its post-movie Q&A got out, it was after midnight. But even though I had a good 20-25 minute drive home and had to be up by around 8 am, I opted to go to the after party even though most of my friends had bailed. Why, you ask? Simple: that movie owed me a damn drink and something on a stick (though it turned out to be taquitos, and delicious ones at that).
It’s not because it was slow, because I expected that. After three films (Cabin Fever 2 being an anomaly that I guess we can’t count), I know better than to expect a roller coaster ride when I sit down for a Ti West film, and that’s fine. Especially for a ghost/haunted house film, since those tend to be a bit slower paced than a monster movie or whatever. In some ways it could have easily have been his best film (and many have said it is), with his tendencies meshing perfectly with its sub-genre, unlike The Roost (creature feature) and House Of The Devil (cult/slasher type). Sadly, it was not the case, and personally I found it his most disappointing flick yet (or at least tied w/Trigger Man).
There will be spoilers ahead, so stop reading now if you don’t want specific examples of why I didn’t enjoy the film. But I should also note that I seem to be in the minority on this one.
Ordinarily I don’t comment too much on acting, because I can’t even play myself convincingly, but this is possibly the first time I disliked a film primarily because of the performance of an actor. I don’t think Sara Paxton is a bad actress, and I’m unsure if it was her interpretation or how the role was written, but either way it’s one of the most obnoxious performances I’ve ever seen. It’s very spastic and sitcom-y, and I guess it’s supposed to be funny and/or charming, however it just drove me up the wall. Unfortunately she’s in nearly every frame of the film, and thus even when the story took some interesting turns, I found it nearly impossible to get past her character’s annoying behavior and try to salvage the viewing experience. Her co-stars fare better; Kelly McGillis is great in her brief turn as a has-been actress who has transitioned into a psychic healer of some sort, and while his Simon Pegg-ness was distracting, Pat Healy was wonderfully droll as Paxton’s co-innkeeper. But they never have a scene to themselves; Paxton’s always there with her “Muppet”-like acting (as someone perfectly put it later).
The ghost story was also terribly bland, which would have been fine with better characters to follow as they “investigate” it, but neither of them are particularly interesting people, nor does West’s script give them much of a backstory. The most we learn about either of them is that Healy wants to run a paranormal/ghost-hunting type website and more than likely wants to bang Paxton, and Paxton is a girl who is unsure what to do with her life. There’s a fun movie to be made about that post-college* “What am I going to do now” part of life meshed with a haunted house movie (Adventureland meets The Haunting!), but this ain’t it, and there’s no big catharsis for the characters anyway. At least not for Paxton; Healy “reveals” late in the film that he made up the stuff that he’s claimed to have seen and doesn’t really want to investigate ghosts (or at least, can’t handle the idea of actually coming into contact with one), but this is an anticlimactic moment because he’s been dismissive of Paxton’s claims about seeing things throughout the entire movie – odd behavior for someone who supposedly wants to make a career out of this. It also negates the only thing we know about him, so that’s another issue.
But back to the ghost story, it’s the usual sort of tragic romantic death nonsense, but too thin to be memorable or separate itself from the dozens of others we’ve heard over the years. Much more effective is the sad subplot of an old man who has lost his wife and wants to come back to the hotel and stay in the same room where they spent their honeymoon. It’s pretty obvious where the story goes, but this character delivers the film’s best moments, as well as its best scares. There’s a horribly botched attempt at a jump scare halfway through that looks like it’s been edited for TV or something, but the two involving this character both work quite well.
While we’re on the subject of effective scares, I was baffled that West shot the film in 2.35:1, as he never put it to any good use. All of the scares are editing based - shot of Paxton, shot of whatever she’s looking at, cut back to Paxton who now has something behind/beside her. In fact, my eyes scanned around the frame during scare scenes looking for subtle, blink and you miss it type ghost appearances (like in Insidious, which was also scope) or ANYTHING that would pay off the use of the wider frame, but it never paid off. It’s hardly his best looking film; I was shocked to discover it was shot on film (the digital projection did it no favors), and I think it only did a disservice to put so much of the bland image on display (UPDATE: I watched the film again on 35mm at Screamfest, and while I am still not a fan, I can confirm that the digital source WAS betraying the film's strong cinematography and coloring. I apologize for the slant). House of the Devil (his best film) looked great I thought, with the look/framing perfectly nailing the tone they were going for (he also pulled this off with The Roost, a film I've come around a bit on since my review), but this one just didn’t hit those notes.
But while the look may have been off, the sound design was terrific. Graham Reznick pulled off more scares with his low rumbles and directional sound FX than anyone else involved with the movie; the creepiest bit involved a simple moan/murmur coming from behind a wall. I also liked what he did with headphones; Paxton is recording EVP at one point and hears music from the earpiece but not when she takes them away, and there’s another bit where she puts them on and everything Healy is saying is muffled. Along with Jeff Grace’s score, the occasional bits of tension (mostly in the third act) that succeed are due almost entirely to the sound work. I also loved the production design in the hotel’s basement, which was loaded with stacked furniture and the like (the hotel is about to close down – the third floor has already been stripped, though nothing else is done with this concept), and wish they could have had a few more scenes there. When Paxton is forced to head down there again after a previous scare, it works like gangbusters – even though I could barely stand her I was fearful for her safety at this point, as the basement had started to inspire that same sinking dread as the bedroom in Paranormal Activity. But these inspired bits are too few and far between, and a second viewing wouldn’t even that much going for it, as you’d already know how they turned out.
One final observation; the movie takes place in Connecticut, which of course had its own Haunting a couple years back. The followup to that film was originally going to be helmed by West, but he dropped out/got fired/accidentally made this instead (I don’t know what happened, honestly) and they got someone else – the movie is actually testing this week. Anyway, I’m not sure how closely the film version will match the “real” story, but the real one (aka “The Haunting In Georgia”) involved a sad old man and a female spiritual psychic as well. Kind of peculiar/funny.
Oh well. After two “hits” in a row (if we’re counting Cabin Fever 2), I was hoping to walk away a full-fledged fan of West, but this one just didn’t work for me. Hopefully he can catch me on his next film. Regardless of how I feel about each film on its own, overall it's plain to see that he is certainly one of the more unique genre filmmakers going right now, and it’s rare/laudable that someone as young as he is (he just turned 30!) has already established a style – I’m just not sure I’m going to ever be a die-hard fan of it. I’ll keep trying though.
What say you?
*At least I THINK she’s supposed to be out of college? Paxton is that age in real life, but she plays the role like a 7 year old half the time, so I wasn’t sure what age she was supposed to be. If there was a line that revealed her age/school status, I missed it and apologize.