The Innkeepers is stocked with horror film tropes: the camera itself lurks, representing or embodying threat; when the characters move through space without a determinate goal, claustrophobia sets in under low, tight shots; the protagonist suffers from a morbid curiosity, a sign of both general intelligence and situational stupidity, an aspiration to self-realization and self-destruction. But director Ti West’s latest film, about a couple of employees eager to record proof of haunting at their notorious inn before its imminent and permanent closure (please keep that word in mind), is self-aware in at least the following respect. The early scares are setups, and Claire (Sara Paxton) falls for all of them.
This initial clever distance aligns Innkeepers with Scream, as opposed to I Know What You Did Last Summer. (N.B. I know fuck-all about horror films, so take my genre references with a grain of salt.) Unfortunately, this attempt to flout clichés ends up burning down the foundation of the edifice just as the roof tiles are being laid. Irony undercuts a belated and ill-grounded plunge into sincerity.
West’s The House of the Devil (2009) was a similarly paced but less playful film. That film was much more nerve-wracking, captivating, and brutal. Anthony Cohan-Miccio wrote an excellent, concise review of that film for TMT, closing with a lament that West hadn’t figured out a way to end the film without revealing the evil in the attic. Innkeepers is an inversion of House. Whereas the latter sustained from the beginning a teleological crescendo, bursting into an orgiastic disclosure (over-disclosure, for Cohan-Miccio), the former slips back and forth between affects and even theses. The terrible secrets of the inn’s basement themselves slide freely between the poles of historical tragedy, childish fantasy, and supernatural terrorism.
When an aging actress-turned-healer (Kelly McGillis) arrives at the inn on its final weekend, Claire turns to her for help after recording the sound of the piano playing itself, or being played by the spirit of a woman killed in the basement. The healer explains that there is no ‘real’ (i.e., the real is not real); there are only states of being. These states are parallel environments, and a person can only swerve the mundane world into the spirit world through a will to magical perception. The healer tries to help Claire reconcile the mundane with the imaginary, the manifest with the latent. She asks Claire what she wants. Claire answers “to know.” But knowledge isn’t a desire, it’s a drive. Believing is seeing, not the other way around. The truth will set you free, but it will also deny you a way out.
Unfortunately, the film gives itself too many ways out. It pretends that its ambiguity is uncomfortable, but the ghostly presence lacks motivation. (House’s Satanism validated its suspense and suspension.) Whether it’s real or imaginary, the spirit element fails to express anything on its own; it’s merely kicked along by the momentum of the apparatus that needs to bring the viewer to the money shot. (Or the hole where a money shot should be, if we wish for that.)
The final shot of the film is of a door. Claire has either hyperventilated to death after locking herself in the boiler room, or she has been killed by a malicious spirit or spirits. The door is open. Interpretation is open. At the last moment, the door slams shut of its own accord; cut to black. Judging by his earlier work, I would have assumed West would know that closure doesn’t work on the viewer if the ambiguity it resolves isn’t unsettling. Ghost stories are about desire, and what West fails to do is inspire in his audience a desire to believe.