Tuesday, 26 June 2012

One hotel worth checking out

Films that dramatically divide opinion can be a worrying prospect for the selective viewer. After all, when a film can be applauded as the ‘scariest movie of the year’, and yet dismissed by other (more taciturn) critics as ‘utter shite’, who are you supposed to believe?

Out this week on DVD, after a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cinema release, Ti West’s ghostly yarn The Innkeepers is just such a film. How brief was its theatrical run? Well, let’s just say the issue of Total Film that gave its big-screen debut a five-star review, is still resting against my toilet cistern. But don’t let its hurried appearance on DVD put you off; it’s no reflection on the film’s quality. Instead, this is a low-fi, slow-burn chiller made for peanuts, so it’s not as though anyone involved was expecting a triumphant three-month stint in the local Cineworld.

Coming so soon after celebrated spookers like The Woman In Black and The Awakening, The Innkeepers feels like a curiously subdued oddity. Whereas the former reveled in their moody period detail - all peeling wallpaper and flickering candle-light - The Innkeepers takes a wryly contemporary view of the things that go bump in the night. At the Yankee Pedlar Inn, it’s more likely to be the drunken actress on the second floor falling out of bed, than the vengeful spirit of a jilted bride.

Most haunted house films tend to feature a cast of incredulous victims, who spend the first hour in a state of perpetually irrational disbelief. However, West’s quirky contribution to the sub-genre opens with his two lead characters updating a website dedicated to the phantom rumoured to haunt the rundown hotel where they both work. Interestingly, our protagonists are fully conversant with ghost story lore and actively seek out evidence to support their growing belief in parapsychological phenomena.  

In the same way that Scream revolutionised a tired format by making its characters fully aware of slasher movie rules, here we have a film about people who don’t freak out when a door closes of its own accord. They’re too busy filming it and uploading it to YouTube. The downside, if it can be called that, is that the first hour of the film is very light on conventional scares. Instead, West allows us to spend time with his laconic leads. And they’re a pretty entertaining pair, spending most of the weekend bickering and bantering with each other, as well as the few guests who are making use of the hotel’s final days in business.

It’s this decision to focus on character and humour, rather than sudden shocks, that seems to have put off most viewers. Perhaps they missed the film’s tagline: “A Ghost Story for the Minimum Wage”, which implied that this might have more in common with Clerks than Insidious.

Adding to the unusual mood of the movie is former Hollywood pin-up Kelly McGillis, playing a one-time actress who’s now a spiritualist and healer. Looking almost as lived-in as her shabby hotel room, McGillis represents one of the most enduring archetypes of paranormal cinema – the ‘Madame Arcati’ figure. And yet, despite the build up, McGillis isn’t given a whole lot to do, other than gaze blankly out of windows, and occasionally swing a crystal pendulum. Even her panicked exposition in the final act seems like more of an afterthought than a major plot driver, adding to the sense of ennui around the entire proceedings. As a consequence, it’s hard not to think about the fact that, whilst Tom Cruise presumably keeps an aging self portrait in the attic, his Top Gun co-star seems to have spent the last decade living in one.

Nonetheless, things do pick up in the final half-hour, and there are a handful of decent scares to be had. But die-hard horror fans complaining about the film’s insouciant tone are perhaps missing the bigger point. Midway through the movie, it becomes clear that, irrespective of any supernatural disturbances, the real ghosts haunting the hotel are its aimless and disenfranchised employees. As played by Sara Paxton (perky and cute) and Pat Healy (A Connecticut Yankee in Simon Pegg’s Court), the two front-desk jockeys are trapped in the limbo of their own unfinished business. But before they can set their spirits free, they need to figure out what their business actually is.

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