Bradford 2012 review: THE INNKEEPERS

Why do so many characters in horror movies end up dooming themselves through their stubborn refusal to take what's going on at face value? To be fair, we all say we'd do things differently but it's a hard thing to convey to an audience the experience of acquiring solid, undeniable proof of the supernatural, or at least what someone thinks passes for proof. However much you may like scary movies, chances are you've never had a blank-faced spook corner you down a darkened hallway.

Yet at the same time, even the most hardened skeptic has some idea of what ghosts would be like, what they're supposed to do - so why do so many horror films star people who flatly refuse to take any of it in until it's too late? If they'd just behave like real people we could take them far more seriously. Witness Ti West's The Innkeepers, the young director's latest feature after the notoriously ill-fated Cabin Fever 2 and the nostalgic tribute to 1980s cult cinema, The House of the Devil proved his breakout cult hits.

Among other things, The Innkeepers is painted as an exploration of history, identity and how an individual's belief in something bigger than themselves can change in an instant when they're forced to take a long, hard look at who they really are. But it's hard to attach any significance to what characters think about the otherworldly encounters they go through when they act with no more self-possession than the cannon fodder in the dumbest stalk-and-slash. West's technical skills have come on in leaps and bounds, but not his storytelling.

Claire (Sarah Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are working at the Yankee Pedlar hotel, a grandiose old building dying a quiet, slow death with the top floor already stripped and all the other staff long since gone. The owner's away on holiday and the few remaining guests promise to be little trouble. But the two employees have something more ambitious than most in mind for their last few shifts.

Luke harbours a passion for the paranormal, and he's determined to document hard evidence of the hotel's legendary ghost Madeline O'Malley, a woman who hanged herself in her room when she was jilted at the altar and whose body was then bricked up in the walls to avoid a scandal. Claire is impressed enough by Luke's dedication that she wants to help him see the project through. But surprise, surprise, reaching out to the other side proves to be more difficult and dangerous than they expect.

West filmed some of The House of the Devil in the same building, and The Innkeepers is part The Shining and the Overlook's colonial grandeur, part a further exploration of his earlier film's faded orange patina. As seen by West the Pedlar is all looming shadows, creaking floorboards and peeling wallpaper where the patterns feel like a headache stuck right behind your eyes.

Claire and Luke are after audio recordings of spectral activity, and The Innkeepers' sound design is exceptional in places, like a head-on collision between Leyland Kirby and Fennesz captured in haunting slow motion and clouds of static. It's hard to stop your pulse racing at most of the key moments - one extended sequence as Claire tracks a half-heard piano melody through the hotel is beautifully done, the tension so smothering it feels difficult to breathe.

The problem is... well, moderate spoilers: it's telling that this set piece finishes on a cartoon gesture, a dischordant note smashed out on the keys by an invisible musician.  There's no human element beyond ohmyGod, ohmyGod, ohmyGod ad infinitum. When every big moment relies on blatantly telegraphed shapes in the darkness, flickering lights or sledgehammer orchestral stabs at deafening volume, it's hard not to feel you're being taken for a sucker.

It's scary, yes, but only in the way a dog would be scared if you started kicking it. You don't feel any emotional attachment when the two leads persist in pressing their nose up against every window in sight, so to speak; when they fail to see coming what West sets up a mile off.

But they don't have the same perspective we do, the fans protest. The hell they don't - these two are specifically looking for evidence of the supernatural, and what they find is no different to territory covered by countless horror movies over the past few decades. Don't these stories exist in this little alternate reality? There's absolutely nothing in The Innkeepers to justify both leads abandoning all sense and reason the moment it starts becoming apparent that ohmyGod, ghosts are real.

Their jokey byplay is affecting up to a point, but it certainly doesn't excuse them weeping "I want to get out of here!" then marching back into the building when the front door is, you know, right there. The sheer idiocy of most of the twists beggars belief - sure, they're beautifully shot, and visually West remains one of the foremost talents at crafting this particular kind of period-centric horror, but when the film's as empty as this it's difficult to care.

By the time the climax rolls around, heralded by the stupidest, most obvious of the Big Reveals, and we go back into the basement yet again - when one of the leads is screaming help, help, I'm going to die and the score is dragging itself through another tiresome  blaring crescendo - the only imaginable response is Jeez, get on with it already.

We've got no stake in what happens, we've been given no reason to care what happens beyond Claire being pretty and vulnerable and Luke being awkwardly goofy, we've seen them take the wrong turn time and time again, so why would we expect anything different now? All the hammering chords in the world can't hide that this is the dreary, inevitable capper on a long trudge through one predictable, threadbare shock cliché after another.

This isn't horror, it's whacking you with a hammer every five minutes and marvelling that you still keep recoiling in pain. Once the memory of the hammer's gone, there's simply nothing left, meaning The Innkeepers ends up impossible to recommend.

(The Innkeepers was screened at the 18th Bradford International Film Festival, held in the UK National Media Museum in Bradford from 19th-29th April 2012.)

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