The indie king of the slow-burn horror flick is back, and this time Ti West is bringing along an unexpected dose of wit, warmth, and weirdly effective character-based comedy. In many ways, West's The Innkeepers is a lot like his previous features (The Roost, Trigger Man, and The House of the Devil), in that you know it's a horror / thriller flick going in, but the director has a grand old time while building the tension, laying down the foundations of the (eventual) pay-offs, developing his odd characters in colorful ways, and (this time around) presenting long and amusing volleys of dialogue between the film's two lead characters.
Luke (Pat Healy) and Claire (Sara Paxton) are a pair of mismatched (but amiably realistic) hotel employees who have been scheduled to work during the place's final weekend in business. The third floor has been closed down, a few solo guests remain (mostly unseen) behind their lonely doors, and Luke and Claire have lots of free time on their hands; they joke around and make banter, they begin a half-hearted search for some of the hotel's alleged ghosts, and they occasionally butt heads with a mysterious new visitor (played by Kelly McGillis), who offers all sorts of quietly creepy advice to young Claire.
And as all these calm, sedate, and frequently amusing vignettes between Luke and Claire flit by ... we just know Ti West is leading us somewhere creepy. The director plays a cool game with his audience: we know something unsettling is on the way, eventually, at some point, soon (we hope), but while we wait for the jolts, we're happy to spend time with two interesting people in one strange location.
While West's previous film relied on crafty tension and a virtually palpable sense of atmosphere, The Innkeepers succeeds mainly due to a canny sense of editing and (especially) the work of the two leads. Paxton is an effortlessly charming young actress, Healy is a quietly commanding character actor, and their numerous scenes together display a smooth and comfortable chemistry. The hardcore horror fans who demand high-impact instant horror from this film may leave disappointed, but they'll almost certainly find a lot to like from the lead pair.
As for Mr. West, he continues to advance his own unique brand of off-kilter, oddly creepy, and entirely original horror flicks. If The House of the Devil was his affectionate throwback to the early '80s, then The Innkeepers is sort of an homage to Roman Polanski with a dash of The Shining and a pinch of various other flicks. And while Ti West is still clearly painting with nostalgic brushes, The Innkeepers marks his most original and novel flick to date.