Sunday, October 14, 2018

Hubrisween 2018 :: I is for The Innkeepers (2011)

Welcome to the last weekend of the Yankee Pedlar Inn’s existence. A kitschy mashup of old-school New England charm and brazen interior design that has gone in and out of fashion at least three times in the building’s well over a century existence, this maze of hallways, doglegs, and winding staircases has been sold and is destined for the bulldozer. The top third floor has already been closed off and cleaned out, the former owner is on vacation in the Caribbean, which leaves two clerks to run things as the last few guests trickle in and out before locking the doors for good on Monday morning.

And so, Claire (Paxton), an eager and earnest but slightly immature college dropout, who is constantly sucking on her asthma inhaler whenever she gets too wound up, which is, like, totally all the time, and the slightly older Luke (Healy), a cynical, know it all wise-ass, decide to sleepover at the inn, too, while they split 12-hour shifts at the front desk these last two days. For this bivouacking will give them ample opportunity to go ghost hunting. Yup. Seems the Yankee Pedlar is haunted by the spirit of Madeline O’Malley, a bride to be, who committed suicide in room 305 when she was jilted at the altar when the groom was a no show over 60 years ago. And to make this story even sadder, the owners of the inn at the time, not wanting their reputation tainted by such a tragedy, tried to hide the body in the basement cellar for several days so they could sneak it out later and let the corpse be found somewhere else. Well, someone blabbed, the owner got caught and punished, and the restless spirit of Madeline has been roaming the halls of the inn ever since in retribution. At least that’s the rumor.

And while all of this amateur ghost-hunting appears to be in service of beefing up Luke’s fallback career as moderator of a Geocities-level WYSIWYG website about local hauntings to the point where he can monetize this, it quickly becomes apparent Claire is the one who is really obsessed with finding evidence of the ghost, which Luke claims to have already seen. And so, on the first overnight, armed with Luke’s equipment that isn’t broken, meaning no video camera, Claire starts poking around with the microphone of an EVP detector, which picks up on something while she stakes out the dining room, listening in on a faint voice, then a woman crying, which melts into a piano sonata, which draws Claire back into the lounge near the lobby where a baby grand piano sits. But the music stops as she draws closer and the static in her headphones clears up -- until an unseen hand smashes down two keys, striking a rather discordant chord, sending a panicked Claire galloping to the room where Luke has crashed-out for the night and raises such a ruckus she rouses the other guests.

Now, the only other people checked in at the moment are a surly woman and her young son, who officially jumped into the estrangement pool as far as her husband is concerned, left him, and wound up here to teach him a lesson. The second and last guest, Leanne Rease-Jones (McGillis), was the star of some popular TGIF sitcom back in the day and is in town for a convention. Claire recognized her when she checked in earlier that day and, being a big fan, when the girl delivered some towels to Rease-Jones’ room, Claire gets a little too starstruck, a little too chatty, and kinda gets the cold-shoulder right in the teeth when the former starlet questions the perky clerk’s career choices. Crushed, Claire is suddenly sent into a “quarter-life” crisis that she tries to air out with Luke; but you get the feeling he’s had this very same shame-spiral discussion with her before, numerous times, checks out of the conversation, and heads for bed.

Later, as she takes out the trash, Claire catches Leanne watching her out a window and waves, only to be ignored. Claire is then drawn to the cellar door, where strange noises are emitting from below. Thinking it might be the ghost, she braces herself and opens the door for a looksie only to get a face-full of an escaping bird, who got trapped down there somehow. And once it clears off, Claire takes a healthy squeeze of her inhaler, quickly padlocks the door to the basement, and retreats back inside. And after the incident with the haunted piano, Claire once more faces off with Leanne, who gets an earful about her shitty behavior. To make up for this, Leanne invites Claire into her room, where it’s revealed she is no longer an actress but a New-Age medium and faith healer (-- this is also the keen of the convention she is attending). And between shots of Vodka, the woman breaks out her crystal pendant to see if she can get a reading on Claire’s ghost.

This, does not go well judging by the pained expression on her face; but Leanne reveals nothing except to give Claire a cryptic warning to stay out of the basement. And this she does until her shift ends at 7am and Luke takes over the front desk. But when Claire gets to her room and prepares to catch up on some much needed sleep, she’s barely settled in before the ghastly apparition of Madeline O’Malley materializes in the bed right next to her, once more sending Claire into a righteous tizzy as she breaks for the lobby dressed only in her teddy night-shirt, where she runs right into the surly mother and gobsmacked son and tries to cover herself, scaring them off to the Marriott in the process, which officially closes the book on the second to last night at the Yankee Pedlar. And while it was surely eventful, the next and last night will be even more so; and so more so, ectoplasmically speaking, not everyone is destined to survive it...

You know, I’m old enough to remember the time when director Ti West was tagged as the savior of the horror genre, which was currently wallowing in serial killers, terrible remakes, self-aware slashers, and sparkling vampires when he made his directorial debut with The Roost (2005). And from the beginning, critics were raving about West’s throwback aesthetic to the unpredictable and atmospheric hardcore horror films of the 1970s and early ‘80s. A triple threat, serving as writer, director, and editor on his films, West was able to put his personal stamp on things, with the notable exception of Cabin Fever 2 (2009), which suffered through so much studio post-production dickering West asked to have his name removed from the credits. They refused. The director would recover with House of the Devil (2009), a creepy tale about a sitter facing off against the forces of evil, which really put West, especially with that twisted ending, on the map to Hooper, Craven and Carpenter territory and started all the salvation talk -- at least temporarily.

As for me, I never really bought into that going theory. And not because I didn’t like West’s films. Far from it. I just found him more in line with Stanley Kubrick and more a straight on thriller director who used horrific elements to punctuate things. Apparently, West was a huge fan of Kubrick’s version of The Shining (1980), which he called the first film to actually make him uncomfortable with the idea of ever watching it again. And while making House of the Devil, West and his crew actually stayed at the Yankee Pedlar Inn in Torrington, Connecticut, for the duration of the shoot. And while there, bore witness to several creepy and inexplicable phenomenon attributed to several documented spirits that have haunted the inn for decades. And so, one shouldn’t be too surprised when these influences combined for West’s next feature, The Innkeepers (2011).

And so, yes, the Yankee Pedlar Inn plays itself in the film, and it’s very easy to equate the location with the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. I’m guessing very little production design was needed to give West what he wanted. And like with Kubrick, West has a knack for making the architecture captured in all of his movies an actual living and breathing character as, here, it keeps closing in on our protagonists, almost herding them down long and skewed hallways, and luring them into empty rooms, as they try to coax the cantankerous spirit into showing itself and catch it on tape or video.

And then things get even screwier when a sad old man tries to check in on the last day and specifically requests room 304. (Hey? Didn’t Madeline O'Malley hang herself in room 305?) When Luke keeps insisting that floor is no longer open, much to the customer’s distress, Claire steps in and compromises, offering if the old man doesn’t mind a room stripped of everything but the bed there’s no real reason why he couldn’t stay on the third floor, even offering to help haul up the bedding. The old man agrees and, with a shrug, Luke hands over the key.

Once the old man is settled in, Claire and Luke spend the rest of the day goofing off in the otherwise empty building, hunting for a ghost both real and faked. And as darkness falls, they start drinking to celebrate the last night on the job. And once they’re several beers in, Claire talks the reluctant Luke into heading into the basement to take some EVP readings in the room where Madeline O’Malley’s corpse was allegedly stored. This all leads to the film’s most effective sequence, which I won’t spoil. But needless to say, the encounter rattles Luke so badly he essentially says he doesn’t want to play anymore, admits he never saw O’Malley’s ghost -- hell, he doesn’t even believe in such things, and staged most of his findings to impress Claire, and vacates the property.

Abandoned and freaked out, Claire turns to Leanne for help, whom she forcefully awakens from another vodka-coma and reveals what she saw in the basement. Here, Leanne takes another drink, and then, armed with her crystal, follows Claire to the basement entrance where she tries to take another reading only to experience a psychic backlash so vile and threatening it detonates her crystal. With that, she implores Claire to gather her things for they must abandon the inn immediately as it seems these amateur ghost hunters have really stirred something up.

A packed-up Claire makes it back to the lobby first, where she finally remembers the old man on the third floor. But when entering room 304, Claire finds a suicide note first, then the old man, dead, lying in a tub full of his own blood from his slashed wrists. And I do believe this was supposed to be the husband who jilted Madeline all those years ago. (I had trouble reading the suicide note to confirm.) And as she retreats from the room, Claire hears something stirring in room 305, opens the door, and sees Madeline, decked out in full wedding regalia, hanging from the ceiling, which sorta confirms that theory on the old man -- suicide note or not.

Several tugs off the inhaler later, Claire is back down in the lobby, where she runs into Luke, who felt guilty for running off and came back. He listens to what Claire saw, agrees they should all leave and call the cops, and then offers to go see what’s keeping Leanne while ordering Claire to wait in the lobby. But once he’s gone, Claire hears who she thinks is Leanne calling for her -- and calling for her from the basement. And in perhaps not the wisest of moves, Claire heads down the steps, where she’s suddenly startled by the spectral appearance of the old man right behind her, still naked and bleeding, and takes a nasty tumble. Concussed, her scalp torn open and bleeding, the poor girl limps along, staying one step ahead of the old man as he stalks her down the darkened hall and takes refuge in a familiar storeroom, locking herself in. And as something beats on the door to get at her, calling her name, Claire tries to escape out the cellar door, only its locked -- because she locked it earlier, remember? Then, the ghost of Madeline appears and reaches out to embrace her. And poor Claire, whose clogging lungs can barely muster a breath, screams for her life as we fade to black.

Due to some clumsy foreshadowing that was less the filmmakers fault and more of my own for seeing way too damned many of these things, I knew exactly where, why, and how The Innkeepers was gonna end, and end tragically, about two reels in, which only left the question of was the film worth sticking around for to get to the when. And as the film played out exactly as I had predicted and ended, oh, so ironically, at the locked cellar door and Claire’s chronic asthma proved fatal after one last ghastly scare of biblical proportions, I really didn’t feel like clapping myself on the back and kinda wished I had been wrong instead of, oh, so, very right. *sigh* And the reason for this? Goddammit, I liked Claire -- too adorable and too fearless for her own damned good, Claire, and I simply did not want her to die.

And yet die she did as the movie wraps up with the police and paramedics hauling two bodies out of the inn. Luke turns over Claire’s inhaler to the cop in charge, saying he found it at the bottom of the basement steps, where she lost it in the fall just when she needed it the most. Here, Luke has one last run in with Leanne, to whom he’d been giving grief all weekend over her alleged psychic abilities, and scolds, wondering why she couldn’t have foreseen and prevented all of this. Leanne says it wouldn’t have mattered if she had because you can’t duck fate as we cut back to Claire’s room as the last live person leaves the Yankee Pedlar. And if you look real close, you just might see Claire one last time looking out the window before she turns to the audience and the door slams shut as the end credits roll.

So was it worth it to get to the when? Most definitely. And the biggest reason for that is a couple of stellar performances by Sara Paxton and Pat Healy as a couple of endearing and acerbic goofball slackers, who try to prove the hotel they work at is haunted to pass the time only to find, to their eventual regret, this 'proof' really doesn't like being disturbed. Now, one of the hardest things to do in horror films is to create a likeable character you don’t want to see get killed. If it were, there would be far fewer assholes just waiting to be axed, stabbed or eaten in them. Here, West takes his time with a really slow and deliberate burn, allowing us to get to know these characters, and get under their skin, as things escalate, making them far more than just simple “specter prey."

And one of the true joys of The Innkeepers is the relationship between Claire and Luke. You get a true sense of the familiarity two people who’ve worked together a long time in a crappy job achieve, who share a solidarity and a strange shorthand only they understand that baffles and infuriates those who don’t, which only furthers their amusement. And this relationship is more complicated than you might think as West shows how Claire thinks it’s a big brother / little sister dynamic, while leaving several hints that Luke seems to be harboring a long secret crush that he can’t finds the words to express properly; and so, instead, keeps pulling at her metaphorical pigtails. 

All through the film he wants to tell her something but the ghost keeps interrupting. When they’re getting drunk on the last night, and Claire wants to do something special, Luke and his liquid courage seems to think they might finally hook-up, or at least have some casual friend-sex, but instead goes ghost-hunting again. And this he does, because it makes Claire happy. In fact, his whole ghost schtick might’ve been in service to ingratiate himself with her and her obsessions. And yet Claire, like a petulant little sister, only seems interested in seeing the ghost because Luke claims he already did and is anxious to even the field between them, so to speak. Like I said, it’s complicated.

Always good to see Kelly McGillis working, too, who brings a much needed believability to Leanne as the only one who can sense how much danger they’re all in. And, yeah, I think she knew all along how this was destined to end. After starting her career with such promise with roles in Witness (1985), Top Gun (1986), and The Accused (1988), things kind of fell apart during the production of Cat Chaser (1989), where McGillis clashed often with her co-star, Peter Weller. The film was a disaster, and McGillis got branded as “being difficult,” which saw her abandon the big screen for the small screen when offers dried up for nearly two decades but is slowly making her way back.

And according to West, Paxton was almost replaced after filming started because he suddenly didn’t find her stage fear and screaming all that convincing -- even comical. Well, she must have learned on the fly really damned quick from what we see, causing West to stay the course to the film’s betterment. This movie would not work near as well without Paxton’s spunk and curiosity. And watch for that scene when she’s trying to get a leaking trash bag into a dumpster, which is pure comedic gold. 

And as for the last scene, with Claire’s ghost in her room? The first couple of times I didn’t even notice it until someone told me she was there. But when I actively looked for it I still couldn’t see it. It’s that subtle. (And oddly enough, the scene is in the trailer.) And now, finally, with this latest viewing and some step-framing I at last saw Claire’s ghost and it adds so much more weight to the ending. And once you see it, you can’t unsee it. So it is there. Keep looking. Trust me.

In fact, it’s kinda funny how that last scene with the sudden slamming door echoes the opening scene when we first meet Claire and Luke, where Luke gets the better of Claire by showing her one of those internet flash-videos alleging to show something really scary, which she watches intently, something seemingly mundane and innocuous, until an abrupt jump-cut to a screaming ghoul announces the joke was on her all along. And if you took that video and stretched it out for an hour and 41 minutes, it pretty much sums up The Innkeepers modus operandi, which may prove too mundane and innocuous with the scares coming way too late for some viewers to endure. But I, for one, really appreciated this slow and steady burn, which gives the final boil-over a lot more punch that will still be stinging long after the movie has settled and is back on the shelf.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow the collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's nine reviews down with 17 to go! Up Next: A film so bad they shot it twice and only made it worse.

The Innkeepers (2011) Dark Sky Films :: Glass Eye Pix :: Magnet Releasing / EP: Badie Ali, Hamza Ali, Malik B. Ali, Greg Newman / P: Derek Curl, Larry Fessenden, Peter Phok, Ti West / LP: Jacob Jaffke / D: Ti West / W: Ti West / C: Eliot Rockett / E: Ti West / M: Jeff Grace / S: Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis, Alison Bartlett, George Riddle, Brenda Cooney

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