Writer-director Ti West is part of a new generation of filmmakers working in the horror field who have eschewed the gross-out shock of splatter porn and the ramped-up effects and thrill that have become hallmarks of the genre. Instead, these filmmakers have embraced atmosphere, character and stories marked by the slow build of more traditional fare.
Both West's 2009 breakthrough movie, The House of the Devil and his latest, The Innkeepers (opening Feb. 3 at the Music Box and currently available on pay-per-view), follow in these traditional paths. Although I don't think either of them is something I'll return to with nearly as much of the anticipatory thrill I get each time I prepare to watch The Haunting, The Innocents or even the more recent Spanish shocker The Orphanage, time is on West's side andif these two are any indicationhe's off to a great start.
The Innkeepers takes place during the final days of the Yankee Peddler Inn in Connecticut. The ramshackle hotelhoused in an elegant, shabby Victorian mansion that has obviously seen better daysis staffed by two twentysomethings: the laid-back, bookish Luke (Pat Healy) and his easily excitable and rather energetic counterpart, Claire (Sara Paxton). The two have heard about the haunted past of the inn and in between bringing their few remaining guests towels and such, have become amateur ghost hunters.
Claire seems particularly enthralled by the ghostly possibilities just waiting to be unearthed and roams about the hotel brandishing the electronic equipment, hoping to capture something. She's also really excitedtoo excitedwhen she catches a glimpse of Leanne Rease-Jones (played with world-weary finesse by out actor Kelly McGillis), who has checked into the inn. Claire recognizes Leanne, a once-promising actress, and proceeds to drive her batty. Leanne is no longer acting and is in town for a New Age convention, as she now has a career as a spiritualist.
The tough-talking Leanne, who smokes like a chimney and pounds down the vodka, seems to know there's something amiss at the Yankee Peddler, as do Claire and Luke. All three surmise it has something to do with the original owner of the place, a jilted bride and a long-lost lover. When a mysterious elderly guest checks in, the slow-moving storybuilt on character and subtlety up to that pointsuddenly bolts toward its conclusion.
Although West's film has the occasional suspenseful surprise, the rewards here are in the long takes as we follow Claire down darkened hallways and the general feeling of unease that permeates the film. West takes the time to really let you get a sense of the place, and one can almost hear the radiators hissing.
He is helped by basically his three-person cast, which adds nuance to the roles. Healy is especially effective as the droll Luke, and McGillis hasn't had a part this good in years. (It's lovely to see her back in front of the camerawith a measure of her trademark vulnerability intact.) Paxton, as Claire, certainly embodies her role and it's probably not her fault that at a certain point the audience, along with Leanne, is just about ready to murder her to get some relief from her continual freak-outs. She's not quite as annoying as Heather Donohue in The Blair Witch Project but, boy, she's damn close.
The Innkeepers is diverting and certainly worthy of examination; given all these pluses, I'd like to have seen more of West's compelling backstory threaded into his narrative. Perhaps a few more character twists and turns could strengthen his moody atmosphere. I await his next effort.
West will be a guest at the historic, 100-year-old Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.a perfect setting for a ghost storyFriday, Feb. 3, at 7:20 p.m. He will introduce a double feature of The Innkeepers and The House of the Devil, and chat with the A.V. Club's film critic, Scott Tobias. www.musicboxtheatre.com
Of related interest: Daniel Radcliffe takes on his first post-Harry Potter movie role in The Woman in Black, which looks to be another old-fashioned haunted house film (albeit one with a much, much bigger budget than West had). The trailer for the film, based on a British novel and previous 1993 TV adaptation (one of the scariest movies ever), has loads of atmosphere but unfortunately wasn't screened in time for Windy City Times' deadline.
More scary stuff: A trio of movies out on DVD this week will keep the creep factor in high gear. They are Paranormal Activity 3, the latest success in the "found footage" horror genre; the Daniel Craig-Rachel Weitz big-time flop Dream House (though, as usual, I liked parts of it more than my colleagues); and the prequel to John Carpenter's The Thing, in which a really nasty, shape-shifting alien wreaks murderous (and very bloody) havoc on the inhabitants of a scientific expedition to the Antarctic. Not scary but compelling and entertaining is a fourth DVD release this weekthe sci-fi futuristic thriller In Time with gay audience faves Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried. Like previous Andrew Niccol films (especially Gattaca), it's as sleek and sexy as its two leads.
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