SXSW Review: ‘The Innkeepers’ Turns Down the Sheets and Turns Up the Fright

Editor’s note: This review was originally published as part of our SXSW 2011 coverage on March 17, 2011. We’re bumping this baby back up to remind all of you dear readers that the film is finally hitting limited theaters this Friday, February 3.

Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) do not have what you might call glamorous jobs. They manage the front desk at the oldest hotel in town that just happens to be closing its doors forever. These unflappable, amateur paranormal investigators decide that their last hurrah will involve drinking beer and capturing definitive proof that this tiny little inn is indeed haunted. But when a washed up actress-turned psychic checks into the hotel, she becomes convinced that the novel little pastime these two share may end up being their undoing. I don’t know, I’ve had worse jobs.

I really enjoyed The Innkeepers. It’s a very basic horror film that actually benefits as much from its comedic elements as it does its frights. The crux of the film is the relationship between Sara Paxton and Pat Healy who play the desk clerks at the failed Yankee Peddler Inn. I had a blast with these two wannabe ghost hunters. Their dry back-and-forth fosters some fantastic laughs. The dialogue batted between them is very genuine which is both a compliment and a criticism; it’s genuine to a fault. Occasionally, though not often, the lines ring true but un-cinematic in a way that makes them flat and dull. It’s a strange thing for which to fault a writer but it gave the film an almost made-for-TV quality at times that undermines both the effective comedic moments and the horrific moments.

What I appreciated wholeheartedly about the horror elements of the film is the antithetical position taken toward jump scares. There are some surprising moments that catch you off guard, but no frame is constructed in such a way as to allow specters to leap between you and the action on screen in a cheap effort to confuse or startle with legitimate fright. Director Ti West wears his sardonic perspective on jump scares on his sleeve as he incorporates playful jabs at the horrendously trite convention. The final shot of the movie is not only a call back to an earlier gag, but rather a mouthpiece for West’s firm position against jump scares. On the contrary, the scares in The Innkeepers are rooted in visually haunting imagery that is thankfully on screen long enough to be appreciated and not coupled with clangs, bangs, and shrieks. There are images that will unnerve you in both their content and the time they are allowed to occupy your perception. I won’t say more for fear of spoilers.

The one carryover from House of the Devil that manages to find purchase in The Innkeepers is the extensive manner in which Ti West photographs his sets. Much like the house in House of the Devil, the inn in The Innkeepers seems to expand ad infinitum as every hallway, every closed door, and every tunnel in the basement becomes its own apparition. The cinematography, much like in House of the Devil, adopts methods to keep the inn itself visually interesting. One particular shot that worked remarkably well involved a girl running from the start of one hallway to the end of another. With the way in which it’s framed, it looks like she’s running along the edge of an enormous ‘V’ and is wonderfully disorienting.

The one qualm I have with the way The Innkeepers is shot is the lighting. It’s almost as if the lighting designer cranked up the set lights in order to replicate the appearance of fluorescent bulbs. It makes the film look washed out and contributes to that previously mentioned made-for-TV quality. What was so phenomenal about House of the Devil is the way in which the house felt sinister from the moment she walked in, which is what garnered a sense of foreboding that carried the audience through a minimalist plot. Much of that was due to how it was shot, but also how it was lit; shadowy and mysterious. And while I’m aware that a good portion of The Innkeepers takes place during the day whereas House of the Devil was almost entirely shot at night, I just wish the daylight scenes didn’t look so bland.

The Upside: Genuinely funny at times, terribly frightening when it needs to be and bold enough to reject jump scares.

The Downside: Some of the dialogue is naturalistic to the point of being overly ordinary and the lighting design leaves much to be desired.

Brian Salisbury has been a film critic and internet gadfly for six years. He is the co-host of FSR's Junkfood Cinema podcast and the co-founder of OneOfUs.Net. Brian is a cult film and exploitation buff who loves everything from Charlie Chaplin to Charlie Bronson.

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