Thursday, February 09, 2012

The Innkeepers

For years, I avoided horror movies. I've justified this with a decade's worth of really awful Stephen King adaptations, that I endured during the dating high school boys phase of my life. But the Innkeepers is a solid reminder as to the real reason I typically have avoided scary movies on the big screen and the Innkeepers was just unsettling enough to prevent a truly restful night.

During its final weekend before the doors of the Yankee Pedlar Inn shut forever, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) keep each other company working the front desk with stave away boredom with tales of the ghosts that inhabit the inn. The only guests are a mother and son escaping an abusive family for the weekend and an aged, actress turned psychic, in town for a convention. So there are few distractions for the ambition-less front desk clerks as they set up recording equipment around the hotel in search of some real evidence of a supernatural presence.

Ti West unfolds the atmospheric scares slowly after talking time to allow the audience to get to know Luke and Claire and many of the scares are simply Luke and Claire frightening each other with internet pranks and unidentifiable sounds in the night. But Claire really does want to encounter the ghost of Madeline O'Malley, a guest who died decades ago, whom Luke claims to have seen. And thus Claire spends her time wandering the vacant hallways and venturing into the basement in search of ghosts, which she eventually finds.

The reason the Innkeepers works so well is that this is a ghost story for skeptics. So much of what occurs at the inn can easily be explained without any supernatural presence, but this doesn't keep it from being any less unsettling. Horror movies function because they feed into our fear of the unknown and anyone can be surprised and a little frightened by what they could encounter in a locked up basement. This is the thrill of these movies, to get the heart pumping and awareness heightened for a couple of hours. But this ghost story unfold smartly. When Claire discovers that the actress, played by Kelly McGillis, is a psychic who claims to be in contact with the spirits of the Inn, she gives Claire some smart advice, to stay away from the basement. Indeed, Claire should take heed of this warning whether or not Leanne Rease-Jones is truly psychic or simply an actress with a drinking problem. As a skeptic, I appreciated that once one steps back from the suspense of the cinematic experience, the events that unfolded might not have been supernatural at all. But then fear really is an experience that exists in our minds and the Innkeepers holds the tension throughout and after a late screening, I found myself listening for pretend ghosts in my less than decade old building.