The unhurried gait of The House Of The Devil and the new film The Innkeepers have led to director Ti West being hailed as the king of slow-burn indie scariness. (Or to the impatient, as an infuriating filmmaker.) But The Innkeepers suggests that West’s greatest strengths may lie with the way he handles the meeting between normalcy and terror, and how characters cling to the former longer than is advisable, because people would—they don’t think they’re in a horror movie. Sara Paxton, as The Innkeepers’ asthmatic heroine, continually puts herself in situations that would have self-aware Scream types throwing their hands up in disgust, as she wanders alone through an old hotel, brandishing an EVP recorder and trying to summon the shade of a woman who hanged herself years ago. Paxton is bored. She and her coworker Pat Healy comprise the skeleton staff watching over the Yankee Pedlar Inn on its last weekend open, and the handful of guests require little of their attention. The two amateur ghost-hunters hope to document evidence of the spirit of Madeline O’Malley in their last days of employment, though they get far more than they bargained for when she starts actually showing up.
For much of the film, Paxton and Healy hang out in a way that will be familiar to anyone whose job has ever involved a lot of downtime with little welcome distraction. A surly mother and her son escaping from a domestic dispute check out, a former actress turned psychic healer (Kelly McGillis) and a strange elderly man (George Riddle) check in. The Yankee Pedlar, a real location in Connecticut, isn’t terribly atmospheric in itself, which West uses to the film’s great benefit—the camera glides down the hallways like a stalking apparition, and slowly, the piano in the lobby, the laundry room, and even the garage become ripe with supernatural potential. Nothing ghostly takes place for a long time, but when The Innkeepers leaves open the possibility that the haunting is all in Paxton’s head, that doesn’t make the final sequence any less frightening, as the fabric of mundanity shreds and the vulnerability of the aimless protagonist becomes painfully evident. Paxton plays a character who’s never taken an active role in anything, a quality that in The Innkeepers seems to provide a kind of paranormal precariousness. The prospect of getting stuck in a minimum-wage job takes on new and terrifying meaning.