If there’s one big lesson to be learned in writer/director Ti West’s The Innkeepers it’s “be careful what you wish for.” Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), the last two employees left at the Yankee Pedlar, would love to get their hands on some real evidence of the rumored ghost that haunts the halls of their creaky hotel before the place closes down for good. Luke has the equipment and the Schlitz; Claire has the dedication. Both find more than they bargained for.
As a ghost story, The Innkeepers isn’t chock full of scares, but the few that it has are strong ones. What really makes this movie something special is its unique, well-rounded characters. Claire is an appealing, realistic female lead — she’s attractive, but not the type of sexualized teeny-bopper eye candy we’re used to seeing in horror films. She may not always make the smartest choices, but that doesn’t mean she makes outright stupid ones. Most of her worst decisions are motivated by her deep sense of curiosity and the mistaken idea that ghosts are benign lost spirits. As Claire, Sara Paxton displays a natural comic energy that’s barely been hinted at in previous roles. The Innkeepers might not be big enough to be a star-making movie, but Claire is a star-making role.
Pat Healy provides support as Luke, another character who feels like a real person and not the horror movie version of what a comic relief slacker is supposed to be like. The chemistry of the casting elevates The Innkeepers above its indie horror brethren. Even smaller roles, like Kelly McGillis as a tired former TV star turned New Age healer, make a big impression. West has made a fairly stock haunted hotel movie, but he’s filled it with non-stock characters.
It’s a decision that pays off. It provides The Innkeepers with a much-needed edge, especially considering how dusty some of its haunted house tropes are. There are pianos that play themselves when no one is looking, a ghoulish bride that shows up when the film needs jump scares, and a dire warning about the spooky old basement. This is pretty much Haunted House 101 stuff, and none of it is particularly bone-chilling. It is sort of comforting though — like a familiar story, well-told.
Ti West continues to prove himself as one of horror’s most diverse young talents, and The Innkeepers is his slickest, most confident effort yet. It’s really a perfect chiller for the scaredy-cat in your life. The interplay between the two leads makes the film almost immediately accessible, and the moments of horror, while effective, lean more on the PG-13 side. Bloodthirsty fans won’t find an experience as dark as West’s popular 2009 effort, House of the Devil, but they’ll definitely find one that’s a bit more fun.