(Spoilers for The Innkeepers below)
Last night’s horror selection was one I’d been looking forward to for quite some time, based on some glowing reviews by the folks over at the Slashfilm cast a smaller budget horror movie called The Innkeepers. This was also the first movie on my list that I had higher expectations from, I’ve been slowly working my way up to more intense and disturbing media and The Innkeepers did not disappoint me at all.
The movie takes place entirely (well, except for a coffee shop) in a historic hotel named ‘The Yankee Pedllar” [sic] that is open for one last weekend before it shuts down permanently. All the employees have been laid off or let go, except for the two main characters of the movie: Claire and Luke. It becomes obvious pretty quickly why Luke and Claire are the only people willing to hang around on the hotel’s last weekend open: Luke is a cynical college drop-out who’d rather look at porn than restock the hotel’s towels, and Claire is an aimless wanderer clinging onto whatever comes her way as a means to escape having any meaningful responsibility in her life. They have nothing better to do than hang out at the hotel, even as it marks the end of their employment.
Claire and Luke have a relationship that anyone who’s worked in the service industry can immediately recognize. The weary sighs at customer demands, the strange rituals and competitions for something to fill the endless hours, the rapport that is somewhere between sibling, flirting, and lover, and the shared animosity toward customers. It’s this relationship that makes The Innkeepers so compelling, we don’t have two people who feel like they’re total strangers, or two walking cliches of doomed horror movie actors, but people who feel like they have genuine emotions and motivations. Which is why when we find out that Luke thinks the hotel is haunted and he wants to ‘investigate’ the haunting in order to drum up business we’re unsurprised. We’re even less surprised that Claire goes along with Luke, supporting him in what is obviously a ridiculous idea.
Except, well, maybe it isn’t.
The first hour of the movie is surprisingly sparse for scares, aside from a prank that Luke plays on Claire and one genuinely creepy moment The Innkeepers spends most of its first two acts building upon the premise that was laid out by Luke’s investigation. A woman killed herself after being spurned by her lover, her suicide was covered up, and her spirit is haunting the hotel. Because of course. The plot sounds ridiculous even to us, much less to those who are actually experiencing it. As the movie goes on the haunting becomes less ridiculous, and more inevitable, and the tension becomes all the more thick for it. That’s the real beauty of The Innkeepers, that it can spend almost an hour of its hour and a half run time with no ghostly encounters, no jump scares, no blood or gore or doom splashed across the screen and still remain so tense. You’re expecting something to happen every second the sun isn’t up, something horrible and scary and disturbing. And this isn’t to say things don’t happen, they do. A piano plays itself, Claire has a nightmare, voices are picked up on a recorder.
But all of it is easy to explain away. All of it is minor, inconsequential. Almost like a joke. That’s why it doesn’t seem so ridiculous that drunken Luke and Claire would go to the basement, despite the dire warnings of the spiritualist that just so happens to be staying in the hotel, because, well, why not? Luke wants to be with Claire, and is drunk enough to listen to her, and Claire desperately wants this to be real, to do something meaningful with her life instead of just be the hired help at a hotel.
And yes, it is real. Horrifyingly real.
One of the most effective scenes in the movie happens in this initial foray to the basement, where, like school children, Luke and Claire call out to the spirit that supposedly lingers there. Claire seems almost giddy with excitement, while Luke grows increasingly pale and trembles. Then Claire’s expression changes. She whispers in amazement. Luke’s trembling grows worse.
“Holy shit,” Claire says.
“What?” Luke whispers.
“She’s behind you.” Claire says, staring over Luke’s shoulder, something between awe and fascination on her face, “She’s coming closer.”
We yearn for the satisfaction of knowing, of seeing, of having our beliefs confirmed. But, no. Our release is denied. We never see if the woman is actually behind Luke. But it doesn’t matter, because Luke believes she was, and Luke has decided he’s had enough of this crap and leaves the hotel. With Luke gone, Claire is desperate for anyone to help her. Luke’s abandonment and revelation that it was never anything more than a joke to him has thrown Claire off balance, and she’s caught by the alcoholic spiritual medium. The medium who wants to know where the spirit was seen.
This is when The Innkeepers kicks into high gear. By this point I was already as tense as I could bear, expecting things to start flying or voices to start yelling, but there still wasn’t anything for me to vent my tension into. The humans went back into the creepy basement and the spiritual medium freaks out and says it is time to get the fuck out of here. Still no ghost, more human tension. Claire goes to find the hotel’s other guest, who’s killed himself in the bathtub, a flash of the spirit then running downstairs in terror. Luke comes back, apologizes, Claire doesn’t care she just wants out. Luke goes to find the spiritual medium. Claire stays downstairs, scared, alone, no longer caring about answers.
From the basement.
Claire follows it. Why? To see her project through to the end? Curiosity? In hopes of settling and redeeming the agitated spirit? In the end, it doesn’t matter. In the end we’re subjected to the release of our building terror as Claire is locked in the basement, flung down the stairs, and chased mercilessly through its dank corridors by a terror almost unseen but as surely there as you or I. Claire runs for the cellar door exit. Locked. Locked by Claire, days ago, after a pigeon got trapped inside the basement. Locked, locked, locked.
We see the spirit. It is horrible, awful, and implacable.
Cut to black.
Despite some moments of cliche and ‘oh of course’, The Innkeepers does the slow build of tension, paid off in one long scene of relentless terror, incredibly well. It isn’t a movie you go into expecting scares throughout, like so many horror movies these days try and do, but instead its one you go into for characters whose motivations you understand and whose terrors are all the more easy to relate to for it. This isn’t the horror movie for people looking for a quick thrill, but the one for those who love the dread of a slow burn.