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SXSW: The Innkeepers

Let me put this as plainly as possible: The Innkeepers is really, really scary. I sincerely hope that this new movie from Ti West – whose House of the Devil has cultivated a small cult following – gets a respectable theatrical release and doesn’t go straight to DVD or VOD or something, because this is a journey best taken with an audience who is really into it. There is one scare towards the end of the movie in particular that had my SXSW audience moaning in terror. Not screaming, but moaning, as in it made us sick to our stomachs. While not as iconic as haunted house genre high points Poltergeist and The Haunting, The Innkeepers does what it does admirably well. And what it does is lull you into a false sense of security and playfulness before scaring the piss out of you.

It’s the final weekend before the historic Yankee Pedlar Inn is closed down for good. The owner has already split for Barbados, and the hotel’s two slacker employees – Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) – are staying at the hotel 24 hours a day until the end, trading off 12 hour shifts. Part of the reason Claire and Luke agreed to these grueling, boring shifts in the first place is their suspicion that the Yankee Pedlar is haunted by a ghost bride who was killed there a century ago and hidden in the cellar so the perpetrators wouldn’t be caught. A lesser horror movie might make the pair’s search for paranormal activity deadly serious. Part of The Innkeepers’ charm, however, is that Claire and Luke treat their ghost hunt more like a grade school sleepover Ouija game. These guys are bored to death, and it’s a fun game they play to keep things interesting and freak each other out. Like with those grade school Ouija board seances, the line between “we’re having fun” and “not fun anymore” is blurry. The shit hits the fan gradually in The Innkeepers, and it’s a long time before we realize just how dire the situation has become.

Sara Paxton is a huge part of why The Innkeepers slower first half still works. Her character Claire starts in with almost Juno-levels of quirky, indie cutesiness. I dreaded and anticipated souring on the character quickly, but happily it never happened. Yes, Claire is quirky and goofy, but Paxton grounds the performance with just enough vulnerability and relatability that she still feels like a real person. Someone to root for. In an early, memorable psych-out, a jump scare makes Claire scream just like any other protagonist would. But when she realizes she’s safe, she does this little “shake out the adrenaline” dance that is so totally inappropriate to a horror setting yet so totally like what you would do in real life after being freaked out. Its little touches like that that make her character so compelling. Claire gets herself into some horrible, unthinkable binds over the course of this movie, and it matters to us because Paxton has done such an incredible job making us really like her up to that point. I wish she was a real person, because I’d like to be her friend.

The Innkeepers is so casual in its pacing, it’s almost unfair how quickly Ti West ratchets up to abject terror in the movie’s final half hour. We’ve seen movies go this scary, this dangerous, but not with such likable characters. Not recently, at least. Where this movie goes isn’t fair, it isn’t nice, and that’s exactly why I’m still haunted by the thought of it a week after I saw it. I imagine that multiple viewings of The Innkeepers might raise a few minor questions about plot logic and thematic consistency, but as an experience the movie is endearing, emotional, and terrifying. It's a combination we don't see nearly enough of in contemporary horror.

-Ben

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SXSW: The Innkeepers + sxsw