The Innkeepers (2011) – Ti West

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During a stint in college, I worked at Subway and I learned a valuable life lesson there. Simplicity is sometimes the most effective way to make something great. People would frequently go crazy requesting all the free toppings, sauces, and veggies to the point where even the most skilled “sandwich artist” (and I was damn good) wouldn’t be able to shut their sandwich without it dropping a sloppy, mustardy deuce all over the counter. Italian cold cut. Lettuce, pickles hots, mayo. That’s all you need. If you start adding in black olives, and jalapenos, and yellow peppers and cucumbers and onions and green peppers, It just gets to be too much. And you’re probably going to look at me like I’m the idiot when your sub roll bursts open at the bottom, you greedy son of a bitch. Ok, sorry for the ‘Nam flashback. You get the point.

Ti West’s 2011 haunted house flick The Innkeepers is just that. It’s an Italian cold cut with lettuce, pickles, hots, and mayo. Everything about this movie screams minimalism. There are essentially just 3 real characters. And a few ghosts. The plot is not complicated. This simplicity allows the filmmakers to really dive deep into the details of the storyline and of the characters. We get to know these people very well and we really care about them. It’s all very well crafted and super scary. The absence of a fancy intricate plotline allows West to really create a powerful horror atmosphere.

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The story focuses on two 20-something employees, Claire and Luke, working at an old hotel on the last weekend before it goes out of business. They’ve always heard the legend about a ghost in the hotel and they want to take this last opportunity to make contact with her. The story says that decades ago, a young woman was left at the alter by her husband-to-be. She then went back to the hotel and killed herself. As Claire and Luke try to record evidence of the ghost, creepy and disturbing things start happening in the hotel. Now, by some amazing coincidence, one of the last guests to check into the hotel turns out to be a sort of psychic healer who can make contact with spirits. That certainly worked out well. So Claire and Miss Cleo have a little séance and actually get through to the spirit in the hotel. It turns out that it’s not just a sad old ghost lurking the halls. And whatever it is, it’s grumpy.

The way this little beast unfolds could almost be mistaken for slow-paced. But it’s really just a careful, deliberate building of atmosphere and suspense. Really nothing scary happens until the last half hour. So you’ve got a good hour and ten of just character development and steadily mounting suspense. It sounds boring but it’s not. West does a great job of keeping you on your toes the whole time with sound effects, lighting, and music. There are a couple of jump scares but they don’t feel cheap or anything. There are even a few spots where you know it’s coming and it still gets you.

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This is not to sound like I’m some kind of macho dude who’s not afraid of anything, but there are very few movies that actually scare me. I can appreciate when a movie is scary without actually being scared by it. This movie literally scared me. I got up to go to the bathroom after it was over and I took a big step off my bed in case there was something underneath about to grab me. And before you ask, Yes, I’m a grown man. Ti West just does a great job of building something believable and genuine in your head. He’s crafted this horror atmosphere in your head for the first 2/3 of the movie to the point that when all the shit goes down at the end, it’s that much more believable. Reminds me a lot of the structure of his 2009 The House of the Devil, which I also loved. West is becoming one of my favorite working horror directors. He’s not about the fancy stuff, he’s just about making people piss their pants. And that’s what good horror should be.

I don’t know that this movie got the greatest reviews but I loved it. It’s not only a great story, but it’s fucking scary. One of my favorite horror movies in the past few years.

  1. Is it scary: 9– Ti West has done a great job setting up the audience to believe the scary shit on the screen.
  2. Originality: 7– It was a cool twist on a fairly mundane plotline. It sounds like it could be just another ghost story, but the way it’s handled, The Innkeepers proves to be more than that.
  3. Blood: 4– Not really bloody at all except for a couple of key scenes. West just proves that you don’t need a lot of blood to make a great horror movie (though we love it anyway).
  4. Believability: 8– The characters were so simple (in a good way) and authentic that you really got to know/care about them. The way they were presented and the way they interacted was, at some points, painfully realistic.
  5. Setting/Cinematography: 8– This is another great thing about the film. It is visually scary. The setting is great- big, old, dark, empty hotel. And they way they’ve used light and shadow really made this intense to watch. There are scenes that are almost entirely dark so you can barely see anything.  That really helped build the suspense.

Final Score: 36/50

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THe House of the Devil (2009) Ti West

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It’s a rare and beautiful thing to find a film that so well incapsulates a bygone horror genre and does so without being heavy-handed in any way (sorry, that’s the end of my self-indulgent prose). If you watched this movie and didn’t know it was made in 2009, you would really think it was 30 years old. And I mean that in the best way possible. 1980’s horror was a thing of beauty. We didn’t have CGI or multi-million dollar special effects to make horror movies pretty (pretty is probably not the right word, but you know what I mean). If you wanted to scare audiences, you had to use things like suspense, atmosphere, camera work and good storytelling to build up the feeling of horror in the mind of the viewer. You can dump on all all the corn syrup and red dye that you want and it won’t be worth anything unless you’ve developed the scare first.

The House of the Devil has all of these things (don’t worry, there are several buckets of of red corn syrup for good measure as well). It’s dark, it’s cerebral, it’s suspenseful, but it’s visceral at times too. You start to feel physically uneasy as the suspense builds throughout the first two thirds of the movie. And for most of that, there’s really nothing actually scary going on. Ti West has developed a truly and completely scary atmosphere and feeling without actually showing you anything scary for the first hour of the movie.

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So as I said, this movie is a homage to the glory days of modern horror but it’s done so subtly and authentically that you don’t even think about it. It’s simultaneously rooted in that 80’s universe, following its rules and styles, and also more sophisticated and understated giving it a more of a modern feel at the same time.

The story goes like this. We’ve got a college girl (Samantha) who takes the world’s creepiest babysitting gig to pay rent for her new appartement. She does this against the wise advice of her ditzy, and stereotypically perfect 80’s friend. Samantha shows up to the house and from the jump, everything is just wrong. We meet this creepy old dude who set up the babysitting job over the phone. He acts really strange and on edge and a couple of times he almost looses his temper. There’s something unnerving, almost menacing about the way he talks and acts. Pretty soon we find out that this dude and his wife are not what they seem to be. Anyway, they leave and Samantha is by herself downstairs in this big, creepy, old house.

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She hears strange noises and rustling coming from upstairs while her baby-sittee is supposed to be sleeping. She pokes around dark corners and closets of the house, all the time building tension and suspense. The longer we wait for something to happen the more intense and scary it gets. Without giving too much away, we soon find out that this creepy family has got something sinister in store for Samantha.

The first two-thirds of the movie are all build up and then the last half hour or so is just nonstop, fucked up, terror. Payoff. Big time. And just when you think it’s over, it gets worse and worse. Imagine sitting on a roller coaster and just click-click-clicking up the hill. Up and up and up. The hill gets to be just as scary as the drop. You know there’s going to be a big drop but you don’t know when. For lots of movies, the drop isn’t as fast or as steep as you hope it will be but this one really really gets it right.

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A lot of this is thanks to the camera work and the score. For the build-up, the music is mostly deep, ominous tones that really compliment the building tension. Then at the climax and resulting chaos, the music picks up to a high, fast piercing pace that really goes so well with the intensity on the screen. It’s really just perfect. And the cinematography is great too. They use these long lingering shots even after the  action is off the screen. It forces you to slow down and sort of reflect on what’s going on. These shots really help set the mood of suspense during the build-up and then make you stop and think during the climax.

  1. Is it scary: 9- Both psychologically and viscerally, this movie really piles it on. Really suspenseful and intense. Serious nightmare potential here.
  2. Originality: 6- It’s hard to give it big points because it was something of an homage or a tribute to classic horror, but it still managed to bring something novel to the table.
  3. Blood: 7- It started off slow with almost no blood for the first hour, but when it got messy, it got real messy. Like bring a poncho and galoshes.
  4. Believability: 8- By and large, this was really authentic and believable. Everything rang true for me except for a couple of issues, (one of which is a spoiler so I won’t mention it here). Also, I realize this movie was intended to be a tribute to the old horror movies, so they didn’t have much choice here, but SHE RAN UP THE GODDAMN STAIRS. There’s no way I can let you get a way with that. minus 1 point.
  5. Setting/Cinematography: 8- The setting and camera work played a huge role in this one. The atmosphere and the way it was captured was really well done and made the whole thing a lot scarier.

Final Score: 38/50

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