Friday, February 10, 2012

Quick Thoughts On Ti West's The Innkeepers

Ti West's last film, The House of the Devil, is probably my favorite horror movie of at least the last ten years or so (and hence, one of my favorite movies in any genre during that time period). Watching it felt as if someone had crawled into my brain and extracted all my thoughts about what a horror movie could be: heavy on atmosphere without feeling overly stylized; suspense-driven with some shocks rather than being only shock-driven; legitimately scary, but in a fun way; elegantly shot and edited rather than jumbled together ADHD style; streamlined storytelling; deliberately paced. Not to say that all horror movies should be this way, but House of the Devil struck a perfect balance of all my favorite elements. I was dying to see what West would do next.

I'll cut to the chase: West's new film The Innkeepers is not that good. As excited as I was for it, I think I knew it wasn't, like, going to reinvent the horror cinema from scratch and bring us into a new era horror film-making, freed from convention and limitations, where it would remain heavily influential for years to come. The Innkeepers doesn't build nearly as much tension as HotD does, isn't quite as atmospheric, maybe gets a little more bogged down in exposition than I would have preferred. But it's still a pretty wonderful and entertaining horror film, and I wanted to briefly express my admiration.

West has a keen understanding that the best parts of horror movies aren't the "scary" parts, but the build-up to and anticipation of the scary parts. HotD was made up almost entirely of build-up and anticipation, to a degree that some people find too slow. Innkeepers one-ups it by mainly focusing on the build-up to the build-ups; it's a horror movie more about cultivating a "hang out" kinda vibe than it is about ghosts and scares.

It tells the story of the only two remaining employees (Sara Paxton and Pat Healy) of an old, supposedly haunted hotel, working during the hotel's last weekend. The hotel is practically empty, so the two decide to see if they can record any proof that ghosts inhabit the hotel before it closes for good. There's plenty of scenes of Paxton slowly walking down hallways to investigate strange noises and all that jazz, but I'd venture to guess even more time is spent on the two employees sitting around, bullshitting, getting drunk and generally trying to pass time. It's a horror film about boredom and the ways people try to kill time while working a tedious job, and mostly it invites the audience to sit back and enjoy watching its protagonists goof off. And as it turns out, this approach makes Paxton and Healy some of the most likable, sympathetic protagonists you're likely to ever see in a horror film. When shit finally does go down, you care about what happens to these people.

Excepting maybe the conclusion, I don't think West's film builds much suspense or excitement, but due to the frequent humor (Paxton trying to throw out a garbage bag she can barely lift was some of the most entertaining physical comedy I've seen in a long while) and West's gift for directing (and mis-directing) the audience's attention, it's greatly entertaining and never less than highly watchable. With a small cast and a limited location, West really makes a nicely textured film which, like HotD, has a nice air of mystery too it without actually having much of a mystery at its center. I particularly like the subplot about the old man who comes to stay at the hotel; his arrival seems to suggest something sinister, but the truth turns out to be more sad and poignant.

I've frequently gone on record complaining about the majority of haunted house-type movies. Not only because I don't believe in ghosts (I don't believe in zombies either, but I love zombie movies), but because most filmmakers use them as an excuse to go hog wild with endless "boo!" scares and arbitrary special effects nonsense. West mostly avoids that and, in fact, mostly plays it SEMI-SPOILERS ambiguous as to whether or not the hotel is actually haunted at all, right up to the ending.

I read an interview with West recently where he indicated he might be a little tired of making horror movies, and wants to move on to something else for his next film. I think he's got the goods, so I'll be excited to see whatever he does next. But although I certainly can't fault the dude for wanting to expand his horizons, part of me is a little bummed that my beloved genre might be losing one of its best young talents.


Shenan said...

I think you need to start going by "HotD" from now on. Pronounced "Hoht-Dee".

Dan said...

I think you mean "hawt-dee"

Shenan said...

Yeah. Whatever. Phonetics isn't my strong point.