To call Ti West’s The Innkeepers a horror-comedy would be adequate were you working in a video store that had the ability of sorting by subcategory, although I have trouble with this genre in particular because you can never tell just what angle the film will take. Will it be more funny than scary? Or provide more suspense than laughs? When you can technically put Evil Dead 2 or Dead Alive on the same shelf next to it, you know there needs to be a better description.
Would there be enough films out there to warrant the creation of a genre called “Charmingly Funny Ghost Stories with Genuine Chills”? Because that’s what you will really want to know before you pick this one up off the shelves (should people still rent movies by surfing the aisles of a video store and should this film actually make it there - we can only hope). And even then, that doesn’t quite capture it because it implies that it’s relatively light as far as horror flicks go. Which it is in the sense that it’s not mean-spirited like a Rob Zombie film or a Wes Craven remake. But it’s not so much to the other side of the spectrum like Ghostbusters (which is untouchable, in my opinion), and is first and foremost a comedy more than anything else.
Like other good comedies, The Innkeepers has its roots in drama. Think John Hughes more than Todd Phillips here. And instead of taking the dramatic turn toward letting go of our adolescent, preconceived notions of the world, West takes the charming laughs straight to edge-of-your-seat suspense and jump scares. Now, I know that jump scares are usually extremely cheap and hollow, but West earns every single one. First, he builds to them by having those moments part of the story that he’s spent time setting up. And secondly, he keeps us off-balance by his masterful pacing, so even when we can guess that there’ll be a scare coming up, we more often than not can’t anticipate exactly when. Plus he sets it all up early on with something that catches everyone completely off guard (a true jump scare even for us seasoned horror vets) and, at the same time, absolutely hilarious. It builds the tension and offers us comic relief simultaneously and effectively. You can tell a filmmaker truly knows his material when a scene in the first act so completely captures the overall tone and essence of the entire movie.
It also helps to have an excellent cast. I can’t imagine anyone else playing the titular innkeepers at the Yankee Peddlar Inn than Sara Paxton and Pat Healy, who effortlessly slide into their loveable roles of Claire and Luke, the two unfortunate souls stuck with the lonesome duty of running a haunted hotel during the last weekend before it goes out of business. Their rapport is key to the success of the film because they’re pretty much the entire film. Aside from a few scenes with Kelly McGillis (is she that much older than Tom Cruise, really?) as an actress-turned-psychic, and an irritated mother with son who show up occasionally, this is really Claire and Luke’s movie. And they totally nail it. I seriously can’t wait to see this movie again.
After the screening on Wednesday night at the Downtown Independent theater in Los Angeles, West, Paxton, and Healy showed up on stage to chat about the film along with producer Peter Phok, cinematographer Eliot Rockett, and a few other quiet crew members. Some fun facts: It turns out that the entire film is based on the real Yankee Peddlar Inn, which West and the crew stayed at during the filming of their previous film The House Of The Devil. Paxton is convinced it’s haunted. The rest all claimed to feeling a weird vibe while they were there. Once West finished the script, he told Phok that unless they could actually shoot it there at that hotel in Connecticut, he was going to throw the script away. Luckily, Phok was able to both secure The Yankee Peddlar for a month and get financing to go along with it all, shooting the film in only 17 days.
West said that he doesn’t know how to do anything else other than make films, so if he weren’t doing this, he’d be back working retail like he had been before. Whether or not he ends up going down the Hollywood studio route remains to be seen; at the moment, he’s loving doing everything independently, working with his familiar crew of friends.
Whatever it takes, so long as he keeps churning out films remotely like The Innkeepers.