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The best thing I can say about writerdirector Ti West’s The Innkeepers is that it doesn’t deploy that most overused 21st century horror gimmick, found footage. The worst thing? It comes off like The Shining as presented by middle schoolers. With cheap scares, a ghost that looks like a puppet, and what must be a record for genre cliches (for God’s sake, don’t go in the fucking basement), the film is horror for the Disney set.
Two of them are Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), 20-somethings who are on duty at the Yankee Pedlar Inn the weekend before it closes. (Reportedly, West chose the Torrington, Conn., hotel because of otherworldly goings-on his crew experienced while staying there when they shot The House of the Devil.) The pair are amateur ghost hunters hoping to prove the building is haunted by a resident who hanged herself after being stood up on her wedding day. Luke seems more rah-rah about all this, even setting up a website dedicated to the legend. But Claire’s the one who actively goes out trying to capture evidence—even though she’s just about the jumpiest ghost hunter alive. She screeches and runs at the smallest provocation, although neither she nor Luke seem to care if it’s in the middle of the night and they might be disturbing the guests.
One of those guests and the only other foregrounded character is Leanne (an unrecognizable, old-beyond-her-years-looking Kelly McGillis), a former actress who now fancies herself a psychic. She tries to communicate with the inn’s spirits—apparently, there are three—and warns Claire to stay out of that basement. That’s about the extent of Leanne’s contribution to the story, except for an early, supposed-to-be-prickly scene establishing her as someone who made Claire feel like an “asshole.” But instead of cementing Leanne as a bitch, the situation only emphasizes the nails-on-a-chalkboard immaturity that Claire and Luke display, bickering over nothing and making knee-jerk assumptions about everything. Add in Luke’s ridiculous fauxhawk, and you’ll be actively rooting for the ghosts.
You’ll get tired of wishing. Employing only a couple of effective frights, West may have intended to build up tension the old-fashioned way, through atmospherics and suggestion. Maybe he should have looked to one of the recent masters of this, Paranormal Activity, for a how-to. (OK, it’s one of the found-footage copycats. Still, it works.) And on top of the yawn-inducing scares, the ending is a low-budget copout that a more talented filmmaker with few funds might have fashioned more imaginatively. When even television is moving in on the genre—a single episode of American Horror Story is creepier than this entire film—you underplay at your own risk. And in this case, the risk doesn’t pay off.