Director Ti West’s feature debut, “The House of the Devil” (2009), was a deftly executed homage to both classic haunted house flicks and the great female-centered horror films of the 60s and 70s (particularly “Rosemary’s Baby” ). Fanatically aware of the conventions of the genre, its titles were even lovingly rendered in a classic 70s burnt orange, which matched the nostalgia expressed through its protagonist’s wardrobe (Farrah Fawcett haircut, high-waisted jeans) and props (period Volvo, first-generation Walkman). This extreme attention to detail gave the film’s lengthy atmospheric sequences, in which little is said and hardly anything actually happens, the weight of familiarity; when blithe Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) wanders around the titular Gothic mansion, bopping obliviously to her music, the menace hanging in the air is as palpable as anything conjured by Polanski.
A measure of this earnestness is still visible in West’s second film, “The Innkeepers” (due out February 3rd). This time plumbing “The Shining” (1980) for inspiration, the film follows Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) as they keep the moribund Yankee Pedlar Inn open for its final weekend. Economic pressures and persistent rumors of hauntings have driven the giant Connecticut rooming house to bankruptcy, but Claire, a very young looking 20-something and Luke, a cynical nerd ten or fifteen years her senior, are determined to document the hauntings in hopes that putting their evidence on the internet might win the hotel enough notoriety to keep it open a little longer.
Naturally, what starts out as a half-assed scientific experiment quickly devolves into a full-blown nightmare for Claire, who is soon set upon by deranged guests as well as a Victorian-era ghost, clad in a wedding gown and apparently left at the altar once upon a time. The first half of the film builds tension nicely, and showcases the same flair for the atmospheric that West displayed in “House.” We spend long stretches of time wandering around the hotel with Claire, just as we did with Samantha in her own haunted house. The bit characters in “The Innkeepers” are also reminiscent of those that populated West’s first film: introduced individually, each one is the incarnation of a different kind of strangeness—the strangeness of old age, the strangeness of faded notoriety, the strangeness of grief.
What animates the story far more than the inn’s weird tenants and sporadic apparitions, however, is Claire and Luke’s ill-defined relationship. At first they seem like high school buddies stuck together on a boring field trip—initially, Claire’s androgynous wardrobe and teenage-boy affect help her brotherly relationship with Luke make sense—but as the film wears on, sexual tension inevitably rises to the surface. West makes some interesting parallels between the hauntings in the inn (which only Claire sees, at first) and Claire’s inscrutable inner thoughts; what is she doing with her life? Where is her family? What does she really feel for Luke? However, instead of following through on this theme a la “Rosemary’s Baby,” in which the outer and inner worlds of the protagonist become hopelessly intertwined and create the tension that keeps the narrative going, West abandons his focus on Claire in favor of highlighting some rather gimmicky scares involving a dank basement and a bathtub of fake blood.
Unlike “House,” “The Innkeepers” fails to mix all its variations of strangeness together into a satisfying conclusion. Instead the film ends abruptly, without any sort of explanation—not even enough to justify a gratuitous sequel. It feels as though West originally conceived an ending to the film that he ended up trashing at the last minute, without having the courtesy to substitute anything substantial in its place. To call the ending a cop-out is too generous; an opt-out would be more accurate. Rather than setting up a great ending only to willfully discard it (see “The Last Exorcism” for a good demonstration of this), “The Innkeepers” reaches a muddled climax only to completely dissolve immediately thereafter without a shred of explanation.
Much as I wanted to like “The Innkeepers” for its commitment to crafting a genuinely creepy atmosphere, I was left so nonplussed by its ending that all my goodwill toward West was exhausted by the end of its brief running time. Inexplicably, the film made it onto Film Comment’s “Best Unreleased Films of 2011” list (albeit at the very end); I can only chalk this nod up to an anxiety on the part of the editors to diversify their end-of-year favorites beyond the esoteric European art films they tend to favor. I get it; they want to stay in step with what people in this country actually watch, and to encourage young directors like West to keep their work interesting without getting sucked into the Hollywood machine. I applaud both these efforts, but just can’t muster the same level of enthusiasm for “The Innkeepers.” To West, I can only say: better luck next time.