Claire (Paxton) and Luke (Healy) are the only staff working at The Yankee Pedlar Inn in Connecticut the weekend before it closes for good. Luke runs a website about the hotel’s resident ghost, suicide bride Madeline O’Malley, but Claire is the one who starts sensing Madeline’s presence.
Many recent ghost stories, from Insidious to The Woman In Black, try to be like ghost-train rides — rattling through stories to spring as many scares on audiences, and unwary protagonists, as possible. Following up his effective The House Of The Devil, Ti West prefers a traditional approach. The big scare in the first half of The Innkeepers is an internet prank; that you’ll still jump at it shows how good the film is at creating a pervasive air of dread out of a depopulated lobby, the slightly off reactions of characters who can never flat-out tell each other things that should be obvious, and the old favourite, gathering shadows at the end of an era.
The House Of The Devil was a lady-in-peril film which kept its heroine alone on screen in an old, dark house for practically its whole running time. This gives the funny, fragile, appealing Claire (Sara Paxton, turning on talents taken for granted by the makers of the Last House On The Left remake and Shark Night) a sidekick in slackery, droll, buttoned-down net-nerd Luke (Pat Healy). Even if the ghost never shows up, the movie could get by as a weird romance between these characters, who play running jokes on each other, and react badly when others enter the bubble of their little world. The way they mistreat the guests is funny and strangely sad, especially when Kelly McGillis shows up in a wonderful turn as an ex-soap actress-turned-psychic healer who chugs hotel miniatures to dampen her sense that something really bad is going to happen. Yet the climax is triggered by the heroine’s streak of duty — it seems everyone has cleared the haunted place when she remembers there’s one last mystery guest on the top floor who needs to be alerted...
It’s a play-it-both ways spooker, always maintaining the possibility that the ghost is in Claire’s mind — though West cannily rams home the point that this doesn’t really make any difference. The last act produces a crescendo of terror and peril, but the reason it works so well is that West first involves us so deeply in the characters.
Among the current crop of ghost stories, this is an outstanding effort. Ti West is shaping up as an authentic Master Of Horror.