Saturday, February 4, 2012

In Theaters/On VOD: THE INNKEEPERS (2011)

(US - 2011)

Written and directed by Ti West.  Cast: Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis, Lena Dunham, George Riddle, Alison Bartlett, Brenda Cooney.  (R, 100 mins)

A couple years back, Ti West's THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL became an instant cult horror item with its distinctly retro '80s feel and its uncommonly slow build to pure terror and mayhem.  It took about an hour for anything to happen, but West skillfully let the tension build to an almost unbearable level, so much so that many felt the payoff wasn't worthy of the buildup.  I loved the film and thought West was an impressive new figure in cinematic horror. 

Sara Paxton as Claire

But then a skeleton emerged from West's closet: the long-shelved CABIN FEVER 2: SPRING FEVER, shot long before THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, but released after.  CABIN FEVER 2 is a shit-the-bed disaster of the messiest order, though in his defense, West claims the producers took the film away from him and has since disowned it.  So now, in limited theatrical release after a VOD premiere in late December, we have THE INNKEEPERS, West's true follow-up to his HOUSE OF THE DEVIL breakthrough.

And...it's not good.  In fact, it's quite awful.

Kelly McGillis as Leanne

West takes the slow burn practice to ridiculous extremes.  With the exception of one brief jolt in the vicinity of minute 50, nothing happens until around 80 minutes into this 100-minute film.  The Yankee Pedlar Inn, an old-timey hotel, is on its last weekend of operation, and the staff is whittled down to just two:  Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy).  Luke has created a web site documenting the hauntings at the Yankee Pedlar, which supposedly houses the ghost of Madeline O'Malley, a bride who was allegedly murdered in the hotel basement decades earlier.  Claire also buys into it and the two spend their spare time trying to record EVP phenomena throughout the hotel.  One of the two remaining guests happens to be psychic ex-TV star Leanne (Kelly McGillis), who warns Claire to stay out of the basement.  But of course, Claire and Luke get drunk and go into the basement.

Pat Healy as Steven Soderbergh

The one sequence in the film that West handles well is when the ghost of Madeline makes herself seen while Claire and Luke are in the basement.  It works to a point, and the fact that we never see what Claire sees is, in retrospect, a red flag of West's clear intention to stick it in and break it off with an infuriating non-ending.  It's a very real possibility that everything is in Claire's imagination (Luke never sees the ghost), including her encounter with a third guest who arrives, a mysterious old man (George Riddle, aka "DJ Nuss" from the Vistaprint TV ads, as well as The Onion's crotchety political commentator Joad Cressbeckler) who wants one last night at the inn for nostalgia.  The whole "slow burn" buildup worked with THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, but West's attempt to go back to that trough fails miserably with THE INNKEEPERS.  He clearly has so little material (probably just the contact scene in the basement) that he has to stretch out the mood and the characterization to absurd lengths, when all he's really doing is killing time.  THE INNKEEPERS stalls, pussyfoots, hems, haws, dithers, beats around the bush, sidesteps, shuffles, and finally weasels out with an awful ending that raises the bar for audience contempt. 

A random viewer after waiting for something...ANYTHING...to happen in THE INNKEEPERS

And the bigger crime than that is how West utterly wastes a charming performance by the appealing Paxton.  I think a more interesting film could've been made of her being alone for the night in the inn, as Healy's moping misanthrope just comes off like a cowardly dick and really adds nothing to the film. THE INNKEEPERS might've made a decent half-hour TALES FROM THE CRYPT episode, and even then it would've needed more material.  But as an hour and forty minute drag, it becomes all the more clear that West has nothing to say and just as much to show and people are mistaking that for "atmosphere."  Props where they're due:  THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is a terrific little film, and it earned West enough credit that I'm not bailing on him yet, but his first attempt to replicate that magic definitely falls under "pretender" rather than "player."  I can't overstate it enough:  I hated THE INNKEEPERS.

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