sxsw can be a harsh mistress, a fact i was reminded of more than once today. it looks like this one film a day thing might be par for the course this year, after being shut out of alison bagnall's the dish & the spoon (2010). fortunately, the films i am managing to make it into have been quite good. day two found me at the paramount theater for ti west's ghost story, the innkeepers (2011)
the story is basic haunted hotel fare. restless, ultimately homicidal, spirits are knocking about a connecticut hotel that, itself, is in its death throes. the lack of business has necessitated closing the old girl down and we have checked in for its final weekend. seeing to our needs and procuring our towels are claire and luke, the skeleton crew desk staff who also happen to be amateur ghost hunters. not much new ground covered, as far as premise goes. the real draw is the way ti west tells a story.
the way that contemporary horror films function are anathema to ti west, and bless him for that. instead of filling his films with characters that spend their time snarkily bickering in between over the top kills, he provides us with real people, people you care about and actually would prefer to not see die. crazy idea, i know, having a protagonist you can invest in. in this case, sara paxton is our lead and does a great job. the current crop of mouse trap films can keep their never ending cycle of miss dr. pepper boat show candidates. give me a kind of lanky, kind of goofy, asthmatic girl next door every time. we spend the majority of the first half of the film just watching the interaction between her and her fellow desk clerk, eavesdropping on the types of conversations you generally have with co-workers and becoming familiar with just where they are in their lives at this point. dead-end pretty much sums it up. the hotel, the yankee pedlar, is one of those places you ending up spending years, before you know it, waiting for what you're supposed to be doing to come along, but, as luke says, everything happens for a reason. no one just ends up at the yankee pedlar.
what west excels at is letting the story take all the time it needs. there was a brilliant scene in his previous genre throwback house of the devil (2009) in which jocelin donahue roams from room to room in the house where she is babysitting, nosily picking through things, getting the lay of the land. the mood grows ominous as she snoops through one room after another, ratcheting up the tension. the payoff? nothing happens. it's a masterstroke, thumbing its nose at lazy horror conventions. you just spent the last few minutes with her, indulging her/your curiosity, moving ever closer to the edge of your seat, waiting to be scared when it turns out you were just getting to know the character better. this sort of thing turns up frequently in innkeepers, particularly in a comic scene with claire simply taking the garbage out, a scene that west said during the q & a was his favorite thing he's ever filmed. these mundane shared experiences contrasted with the occasional moments of shock make for a significantly more satisfying payoff than the standard body count horror.
the sound design and score are also particularly effective, expanding the claustrophobic world of this small hotel beyond the margins of the screen. true to form, the ending is wholly satisfying while simultaneously being the ending you least hoped for. things are not set right, order is not restored and everyone left standing will be forever shaken by the experience even while life and its mundane routine carries on. if that is not the definition of real-life horror then i don't know what is. by employing a classic style of storytelling and completely ignoring anything having to do with the climate of horror films today, west has assembled something clever, fun and spooky, traditional and modern all at once. if your idea of horror involves the most gruesome mechanisms imaginable and obligatory nude scenes, look elsewhere. if you enjoy actual dialogue and atmosphere and the potential for fright in the world we actually inhabit, you will likely enjoy what west does.
so if you see this poster at your local cineplex anytime soon, go show some support for genre film that is both fun and not an insult to your intelligence. a packed house at the paramount certainly enjoyed it. it was good to see a smaller genre film get such a prime slot/venue at the festival and it was even better to see such a large and enthusiastic crowd in attendance. sxsw folks, you have two more chances to catch it this week. it will be at westgate on monday, 3.14.11, at 9 p.m. and it will be the midnight movie at the alamo ritz on wednesday, 3.16.11. go get spooked.