SXSW Review: Ti West follows up acclaimed ‘House Of The Devil’ with playful ghost story ‘Innkeepers’

AUSTIN – Ti West is starting to build a brand name for himself as a horror filmmaker, and with his last film “The House Of The Devil,” he seemed to crystallize his voice and really settle into what is he wants to do as a storyteller.  That film is all about the ultra-slow burn, and by the time it actually pays off, it’s obvious that West is more interested in the fuse than the explosion.  Since it seems that it was technically impossible for anyone to write a review of “House” without using the term “slow burn,” West seems to have made a conscious decision to play with expectations for his new film, “The Inkeepers,” which made its premiere over the weekend at the SXSW Film Festival.

“The Innkeepers” stars Sara Paxton and Pat Healy as Claire and Luke, two young people who are working the front desk at The Yankee Pedlar, an old hotel that is about to close.  For the most part, they’re the only ones who are in the building, and they spend much of their time recording various rooms in the hotel on both audio and video, trying to capture some sort of proof of hauntings in the old building.  And for probably 2/3 of the film, it plays as almost a low-key comedy about inertia, and there’s a great laid-back Jarmusch vibe to what’s going on, punctuated only by the occasional jump scare which plays as an intentional violation of the mood that’s being built.  It’s like West read the complaints that nothing happened in his last movie, so he’s chosen to include a number of blatant, obnoxious, over-the-top jump scares, so in your face about it that you have to laugh.

Eventually, “The Innkeepers” does indeed become a horror film, but it’s late in the game, and when it happens, it’s like the film shifts gears and becomes a totally different movie, one that was only hinted at in the film’s opening acts.  And that last third is almost non-stop in the way it climbs on top of the viewer with both mood and overt scares, and it builds to a wildly effective conclusion that got several screams in the theater.  What the film doesn’t manage to do during that conclusion is wrap things up in a way that adds some other level of meaning to what we’re watching.  This is a movie that is entirely text, with no subtext at all.  My favorite kinds of horror films are the ones that work on several levels.  I love it when I can enjoy a movie as a visceral ride, an experience that is all about fear and immediate reaction, and then later the film soaks in on another level, some sort of political or social or personal implications grounding the film and giving it extra weight.  The more there is in the text, the more it’s worth digging into and revisiting, the more highly I think of a film.  Here, Ti West has made a movie that seems almost entirely subtext-free, and as a result, I don’t know if I’ll be revisiting it the way I do with my favorite films in the genre.

Even so, “The Innkeepers” definitely works as an experience.  Sara Paxton makes an appealing lead, charming and quirky and completely honest.  Because she seems so natural as she moves through the rigged game West has set up for her, we’re willing to follow her into those dark basements, those haunted corners, and the scares really pay off.  She and Healy have a very easy chemistry, and it’s easy to see why his character harbors a major crush on hers.  The film has a real voice, and it’s apparent that West is getting more and more comfortable as a filmmaker.  I still think he’s working in a minor key, revving up to something greater, but as long as he’s working like this, making films that deliver this sort of easy energy, I’ll keep watching.