Ti West’s last movie, House of the Devil, was one of the very best horror films of the last decades. Straightforward but terrifyingly taut, the tale of a babysitter unknowingly stalked by Satan worshippers was a quiet little masterpiece of the genre, and only escaped your attention – which it probably did – because it was barely released theatrically. The added clout of a classic, if slow rollout would have done wonders for the film’s reputation and the career of Ti West, whose follow-up, The Innkeepers, is eking onto Video on Demand this week with just as little fanfare. It’s not as ingenious as House of the Devil, but it’s a perfectly creepy scarefest with standout performances across the board.
Shark Night’s Sara Paxton stars as Claire, an adorably neurotic wallflower who works at the Yankee Pedlar Inn with a longstanding urban legend attached, about a newlywed whose death was covered up by the management. Sara’s only co-worker over the lonely weekend, the inn’s last, is her co-worker Luke, Rescue Dawn’s Pat Healy, and together they try one last time to capture evidence of the paranormal phenomena on their audio equipment. That’s pretty much it for the plot, save for interludes with a Shirley MacLaine-ish actress/psychic played by Kelly McGillis and the occasional annoying tenant. That, however, is all we need. West doesn’t overload The Innkeepers with incident, because the suspense of waiting for something to happen is too often ruined by consistent gratification.
What West has done with The Innkeepers is craft an understated, deeply scary film about detached characters obsessed with searching for answers and falling into a self-fulfilling prophecy, culminating in one of the most frightening conclusions in recent horror memory. And even then, not all that much happens. You could boil The Innkeepers down to its essence and have a fairly short, relatively familiar campfire ghost story, but West simply nails the execution. He puts the flashlight under his chin and milks the spooky bits with silent tension. This is that rare kind of horror movie that actually makes you scream, “Don’t go in there!” Propriety prevented me from actually calling that out at my screening, but I genuinely had to stop myself. As West’s camera lurks through corridors and threatens to reveal terror behind every door, you will crane your neck to try to get a jump on what feels like an inevitable shock. West also knows not to actually give you that shock every single time, so that whenever there’s actually something to terrify you it achieves maximum effect.
But The Innkeepers isn’t perfect, it just offers perfect scares. The story is minute in stature, and amounts to little beyond an eerie character study. It purports to be a horror comedy, but feels so grounded in realism that it strikes me more as a supernatural drama that just happens to have some funny characters in it.. And you could argue that the ending doesn’t amount to very much, and you’d be right, but getting there was such an unnerving experience that I didn’t particularly. It’s a slight film, arguably more insubstantial than it could have been, but The Innkeepers is so focused on infecting the theater with its deathly tone that you’ll get through at least one without second guessing any of its minor imperfections.
Alas, The Innkeepers will barely have a chance to infect theaters, since it’s appearing first on Video on Demand this week. Like House of the Devil before it, the subtle amplification of the tension works best in a theatrical environment, where the darkness, the cold and the roomful of silent strangers contribute such a disturbing air to the proceedings that you’ll wish they could be included with the inevitable home video release. Watch The Innkeepers at home this weekend if you can shut off the lights, crank up your speakers and devote yourself to falling under its spell. If that’s not an option, catch The Innkeepers when it premieres in theaters on February 3, 2012. It’s a minor macabre treat.