Ti West’s The Innkeepers screens on Friday night as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s fifth Scary Movies series. Magnet Releasing will release it on demand in December and in theaters in February.
The first scare in The Innkeepers is a cheap jolt, done by one character to another as a practical joke. It’s not because director Ti West doesn’t know how to scare an audience. I mean, the few scares that he delivers during the bulk of this movie are smart, good-natured, and funny, but The Innkeepers isn’t a goofy horror movie. It’s just that West knows that the scariest thing you can see on screen isn’t something bad happening to someone–it’s something bad happening to someone you’ve grown to love over the last 100 minutes. He scares his characters so you’ll like them more; then he scares you.
Sara Paxton stars as just about the dorkiest, most lovable heroine a horror movie has ever had. Asthmatic, ambitionless, and adorable, she’s working the last weekend at a small-town hotel, a kind of modest Overlook that’s possibly haunted. She and her co-worker, a Simon Peggish Pat Healy, are amateur paranormal enthusiasts, hoping for one last ghostly encounter. West broke through in 2009 with The House of the Devil, a Satanic slasher that evoked, without wink or kitsch, the horror films of the late 1970s. Here, he explores a different subgenre: the haunted house (or haunted hotel) movie, often drawing on an 80s, Spielbergian charm.
Above all, West is patient. Forty minutes pass before the first bona fide supernatural phenomenon, and almost another 40 before the next. Instead of focusing on the horror, he devotes himself to developing characters. “Never skimp on the bread,” Paxton says about sandwiches, but she may as well be talking about West’s approach to storytelling. He has become a modern horror master: the way he gently parallels the paranormal activity with poignant real-world themes (the ghost is “stuck” in the hotel, Paxton in an aimless rut); the way he expertly employs Jeff Grace’s strings-and-woods score that’s at turns panicked, mournful, and light-heartedly curious; the way he elicits goodwill for Paxton (she was not so sympathetic in Shark Night 3D); the way he moves at ease between contrasting moods; the way he exploits creeping camerawork, slow build-ups and delayed reveals to maximum effect (he’s his own editor). West makes you wait for the climax. But because of how he got you there, they’re ten totally terrifying fucking minutes.