After paying respectful homage to ’80s horror-thrillers with “The House of the Devil,” genre maven Ti West goes further back in time for “The Innkeepers,” a deliberately paced, dialogue-heavy ghost story in the style of Eisenhower-era B-pics. Indeed, West’s latest retro-referential effort wouldn’t be out of place on a ’50s drive-in double bill with the likes of “The Screaming Skull” or “Terror in the Haunted House.” Slow-burning buildup, lack of explicit mayhem and overall low-tech approach may strike cineastes as amusingly quaint, but mainstream auds aren’t likely to check in during limited theatrical runs. Homevid and VOD await.
The drama unfolds in the soon-to-be shuttered Yankee Pedlar Inn, located in downtown Torrington, Conn. During the hotel’s final days of operation, the staff has been reduced to two twentysomething employees — tomboyishly cute Claire (Sara Paxton) and aggressively nerdy Luke (Pat Healy) — who share an avid interest in the paranormal.
It’s obvious that, even if the hotel still were a thriving concern, these two probably wouldn’t tax themselves while attending to guests. But now that almost all the rooms are vacant, Claire and Luke can devote even more of their time to patrolling the hallways, inspecting the basement and scouring the lobby for signs of spirits long rumored to be haunting the inn.
Luke has already started a website devoted to the hotel’s history of supernatural manifestations, though he’s such a slacker that he hasn’t quite finished the site. Claire is a bit more consistently self-directed when it comes to ghost hunting, but she’s not entirely pleased when she finds what she’s looking for.
West and lenser Eliot Rockett deserve considerable credit for being able to generate suspense and occasionally spring scares without relying on familiar haunted-house atmospherics. The Yankee Pedlar Inn is a real place (West and his film company stayed there while shooting “House of the Devil” in nearby Lime Rock, Conn.), and throughout “The Innkeepers,” it appears no more foreboding than any other unremarkable inner-city hotel that hasn’t been refurbished since the 1970s.
For about an hour or so, West maintains interest by alternating between the animated conversations of Claire and Luke, and anxious explorations by an increasingly nervous Claire. Occasionally, West drops in a scene with Kelly McGillis as an aging actress-turned-spiritualist who just happens to be one of the hotel’s very last guests. For the most part, however, West’s intent is to unsettle, not shock or scare — until, at long last, the audience gets a good look at what’s going bump in the night.
Paxton is enormously appealing, Healy aptly prickly and McGillis effectively ambiguous. And as an added attraction, indie filmmaker Lena Dunham (“Tiny Furniture”) has a fleeting and funny cameo as an annoying barista in a neighboring coffee shop.
There’s nothing at all campy or in-jokey about “The Innkeeper”; one might say West is deadly seriously throughout. But composer Jeff Grace’s shrewdly moody music — which greatly enhances the sense of mounting dread in the pic’s second half — has strong hints of Bernard Herrmann’s classic scores for Alfred Hitchcock, suggesting that, like many other makers of thrillers, West sees nothing wrong with an occasional allusion to the Master of Suspense.