Ti West makes horror films backward: the horror is thumb-twiddling, but the non-horror stuff is fantastic. House of the Devil, his lovingly but heroically non-kitschy retro ‘80s horror programmer (which was even released on VHS in an oversized plastic shell box), is gripping long as we’re waiting for the goods, but falls miserably to pieces once said goods belatedly arrive. The Innkeepers isn’t as memorable as House of the Devil; there’s no early, out-of-nowhere death scene, no früg session to the Fixx, no Tom Noonan. But it’s an evolution in a more unique way: it’s a film driven by characters who operate as more than narrative pawns. Indeed, lop off the final 10 minutes—as with House of the Devil, a letdown, albeit less egregiously so—and you’ve got an uncanny portrait of two strangers forced to cohabitate through the whims of the employment field.
By all available evidence, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) have labored at the Yankee Padler Inn in Connecticut for a while. We only see them during the inn’s final days, when they have to attend to what’s left of the clientele, including a grouchy, we’re-told-famous actress (Kelly McGillis). Mostly, though, they shoot the shit. There’s word that the joint is haunted. The ghosts’ potential authenticity sticks in the back of Claire and Luke’s minds but, largely, that’s where it stays. The majority of The Innkeepers busies itself depicting the kind of relationship that only exists between co-workers who’ve spent too much time together. They exude a comfortable, lived-in, goofy rapport, but one that will never progress to another level, even if one of them (Luke) harbors half-assed intimations that it could.
Till now, West has been Val Lewton crossed with Larry Fessenden, but The Innkeepers suggests his next step could be scare-free. He still needs work: the proceedings sometimes have a sitcom cuteness, although he knows how to get relaxed performances. Paxton is all wide-eyed, unfocused pep, but in a good way, and her never-quite-grating work is nicely undercut by Healy’s potentially career-making irascibility. West gives them plenty of room to stretch out, develop as characters and joke around—enough room to make up for the moment when The Innkeepers finally remembers to succumb to genre requirements.