Slow burn. That's that convenient phrase critics have used for movies, particularly thrillers and horror films, that build from steady, seemingly innocuous beginnings to thunderous conclusions. Sometimes the goal is met, and sometimes it's not.
With a definite love of the slow burn, filmmaker Ti West has crafted stories that follow the dramatic tropes of horror classics like Carnival of Souls and The Exorcist. His most acclaimed effort, House of the Devil (about a college student taking an ill-advised babysitting gig in the house of a possible satanic cult) and his newest, The Innkeepers (where a couple of hotel clerks investigate the paranormal activities of the infamous Yankee Pedlar Inn, an actual haunted location in Connecticut), could almost qualify as sister films due to the similarities. They both adopt a technique of 80 percent mindless chit-chat mixed with 20 percent tension. Both of the films contain female protagonists that are likable, identifiable characters trapped in sinister locations. But in the end, these same elements seem to yield very different results.
In Inn, two employees, lively young Claire (Sara Paxton) and older, dour Luke (Pat Healy) are employed at the Yankee Pedlar in the waning days before the place closes its doors for good. With little to keep them busy, they trade the usual vapid employee banter while engaging in mind-numbing web surfing. Occasionally they attempt to work on Luke's Ghost Hunters-esque website. The hotel's guests — a runaway wife and her son, an elderly gentleman, and a washed-up actress with an interest in talking to spirits — and the intermittent spooky occurrences are meant to give the film a drawn-out paranoia that should keep us on the edge of our seats. No such luck.
In fact, in one scene, the faded starlet, Leanne (Kelly McGillis) performs a seance to make contact with the spirits. It is here that McGillis, an otherwise all right actress, succumbs to some good old fashioned B-movie theatrics. You know she's made contact as her face crinkles into pained expressions and head movements. Watching this scene, I kept wondering if I was supposed to feel tense from the implied spookiness or from the guffaws I was trying to suppress. Something tells me laughter wasn't the intended reaction, but I'll be damned if the chuckles didn't kick in.
Naturally, Leanne tells nosy Claire that she should stay away from the hotel's basement, and as you have probably guessed, Claire is not the world's best listener. She gives into cliches and drags Luke down into the basement to satiate her curiosity. This leads to more spooky stuff, then more chitchat, then more spooky stuff. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
I'm down with some slow burn, but it comes with a huge caveat: You've got to coat all that burn time with emotional resonance. That wasn't done here. There are several scenes of Claire strolling around, investigating a strange noise in the distance, with a random jump scare thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, a person walking around empty rooms does not equal character development. It equals a person walking around empty rooms.
There are two positive things that stand out amongst The Innkeepers' flaws: Claire is likable, cute, and quirky like a non-ducklipped Meg Ryan, while cinematographer Elliott Rockett's steady camera floats through the halls like the ghosts in The Shining. Maybe therein lies the problem: There are familiar elements that should coalesce to make a fun horror movie, but there is very little else that keeps it from being lifeless or, in some scenes, laughable. By its underwhelming conclusion, the viewer may be left to wonder if its meandering 100-minute running time was worth the potential butt-numbing.