Scary things come to those who wait in “The Innkeepers,” a spooky haunted-hotel movie that holds back on the frights until the exact moment that you think you’ve wandered into a mumblecore slacker comedy by mistake.
Delayed shocks seem to be a trademark for writer-director Ti West — although “trademark” might be putting too fine a point on it, what with this being only his second feature to open in theaters. In 2009’s acclaimed “House of the Devil,” a spot-on evocation of 1980s babysitter-in-peril horror movies, West diverts the audience with long stretches where nothing much happens; it’s not until the terror gets ratcheted up in the third act that we realize that the suspenseful payoffs rely upon all those seemingly pointless moments earlier on.
That same strategy serves West well with the initially laconic and droll “The Innkeepers.” Claire (Sarah Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are the skeleton crew working at the Yankee Pedlar Inn on the very last weekend before the place closes for good. Local legend says that a jilted bride named Madeline O’Malley committed suicide there and that her spirit continues to haunt the place, and Luke has created a web site dedicated to documenting all the paranormal phenomena on the premises.
But with the hotel closing, and the two front-desk clerks uncertain and seemingly nonplussed about their future career prospects, Luke and Claire mostly eschew ghost-chasing in favor of playing pranks on each other and ignoring the handful of guests who have checked in.
That all changes with the arrival of washed-up TV actress Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis); Claire’s a fan of her sitcom work, but it’s Leanne’s new gig — as a healer and medium with at least some working knowledge of the spirit world — that encourages Claire to try to commune with the local poltergeists. And in movies like this, that’s never a good idea.
The few jolts that occur early on are the result of Claire and Luke trying to scare each other, which gives West the opportunity to lampoon many of his peers in the horror genre, who rely heavily on cheap gimmicks like cat-in-the-closet and quietquietNOISE to spook their viewers. Once things get legitimately terrifying, West has us so deeply inside his characters’ heads and the hotel’s ghostly lore that he can pour on the suspense without having to cheat.
It also saves West from having to insert extraneous characters just to up the body count; the intimacy of a small cast serves the film well, particularly since everyone’s so terrific; Healy and Paxton have a snappy, lived-in rapport, McGillis provides a surprising level of gravitas, and Lena Dunham (“Tiny Furniture”) makes a hilarious cameo appearance as a local barista with a tendency to over-share.
Smart, funny and creepy, “The Innkeepers” does a great deal for Ti West’s reputation as an up-and-coming filmmaker while simultaneously making rustic hotels seem a lot less quaint and charming.