The best horror movies are sleight of mind. Like a misdirection in a magician’s trick, a really good horror film takes you down the road you were expecting and then slams you into a spin that blows every preconception you had out of the window. 

I remember a trick performed within a foot of me one night in a Chinatown restaurant that involved the restaurants owner scribbling her signature on a fifty pound note (it was all she had… go figure) and the magician calmly tearing it up, setting fire to the pieces, and then reincarnating the note from the centre of a lemon that was produced from among a heap of lemons in a basket in a kitchen in a completely ‘nother part of the building. 

I’ve never forgotten that trick. Just like I’ll never forget ‘The Innkeepers’. 

And that’s why I’m writing this review in the middle of the night because I really need to tell you how exceptional this film is, with perfect writing and direction, perfect leads in Sara Paxton and Pat Healy and why all the lights are on in the house as I write – and I mean all the lights…  because ‘The Innkeepers’ could very well be the scariest film I’ve ever seen. 

I might explain that further. If nothing bad happens and I make it to the end of the review. 

In Northern Connecticut stands a hotel called the Yankee Pedlar Inn. It’s stood there for more than a century and it’s reputedly one of the most haunted hotels in New England.

The Yankee Pedlar is going out of business and its two remaining employees – the charmingly enthusiastic Claire and her slacker colleague Luke, a computer geek who’s created a website all about the inn’s spooky past – decide to mark the occasion with a spot of ghost hunting. Who knows, if they can trap the inn’s most famous supernatural resident on camera fortunes could change for the both of them.

And fortunes do change, in more devastating ways than Claire and Luke could ever suspect.

If this sounds like a slight ‘Twilight Zone’ vignette of a story you would be wrong. All the best horror tales begin with small, simple steps. It’s their simplicity that ultimately makes them terrifying, that makes your hair stand up on the back of your neck as you hunker down into your seat and whisper to the screen “don’t go in there… you really don’t want to go in there”. It’s why the best horror movies are the ones you experience right down into the core of you, that remind you you’re alive and you’d really like to stay that way.

Ti West, writer and director of ‘The Innkeepers’, has created a beautifully observed masterpiece of a film. This is his fourth feature and he’s got the mechanics of horror cinema down to a fine art, allowing plenty of room for us to enjoy his characters and soak up the clammy off-kilter atmosphere before taking us, in a deceptively slow burn, into the terrifying dark heart of the inn’s deepest secrets. He knows that all the most intelligent and affecting  ghost stories begin like campfire tales with the lights down and a torch beneath the storyteller’s chin, throwing shadows, drawing us deeper into the spell cast by the words and pictures (there’s a lovely moment when Paxton’s character actually does this, with a great payoff a couple of minutes later) and he’s got confidence enough in his own abilities, and in his cast and crew, to keep racking up the tension without necessarily delivering shocks at every turn.

They return that confidence in spades. Sara Paxton and Pat Healy both give truthful, understated performances. They’re funny too, with Paxton particularly showing a fine gift for comedy – check out the scene when her slightly-built character tries to wrestle a massive bag full of the inn’s garbage into an enormous dumpster with a lid that stubbornly won’t stay open. It’s a carefully observed sequence that makes us smile as it also makes us like Claire and Luke even more and not want to see any harm come to them and it underlines how West isn’t afraid to take his foot off the suspense for just a second to allow us, and his people, to breathe and relax before… where did that noise come from?
 
The inn’s remaining guests – an angry mother and her obnoxious son, an elderly man with a strange insistence to spend the night in an unavailable room, and a former TV star-turned-psychic who initially helps Claire make contact with the inn’s tragic spectre and eventually delivers the final warning that Claire might have received too late – are all carefully drawn studies.

Kelly McGillis gives a brittle performance as the crystal-toting psychic, lifting a character that could easily have become caricature into three wholly believable dimensions. Her scenes with Paxton, especially an early scene when Claire delivers towels to her room and self-consciously gushes that she’s a huge fan of the soap opera McGillis’s character once starred in, are particularly good. And when McGillis tells Claire not to go in the basement you know she means it just as surely as we know Claire is destined to go in the basement, but West gets her there in a smart surprising way that is completely not the kind of brainless deus ex machina moment so many inferior horror movies resort to and actually springs up on us as savvily and violently as it springs up on Paxton herself.

Horror cinema is a director’s medium but the director not only needs a strong script to work from but also, in the most successful examples of the genre, an equally strong musical score to enhance and nuance the images. Composer Jeff Grace knows what he’s doing right from the movie’s Bernard Hermanesque opening theme and everything that comes afterwards is textbook horror film soundtrack. And as smart as the direction. You know it’s there without knowing it’s there, which is the way it should be.

And as for the ghosts, when they come, they don’t disappoint either.

So here’s why ‘The Innkeepers’ might be the scariest film I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of scary films.

Have you ever watched a movie that’s taken you out of your world so subtly you didn’t even notice it happen? One minute you’re in your seat, the next you’re inside the screen and totally immersed in the story. It’s like a trance state. Okay…

…and then that story takes you slowly up a skewed staircase and down a long narrow corridor where you don’t want to go towards a closed door you really don’t want to open and through it into the kind of solid dark where you want to close your eyes because you don’t want to see what’s  waiting for you in the shadows but you’ve got no choice, you have to step deeper into the black with your heart racing and you squint your eyes just a bit, just enough to feel protected like a child hiding behind their hands, as you stare hard into the dark, every nerve sharpened ready to scream and run, staring so hard into the dark that it begins to form into something else and you’re not sure if what you’re seeing is there at all but… by that time there’s no escape.

That’s what ‘The Innkeepers’ did to me. There are moments when I genuinely wanted to look away and couldn’t and when Claire went into the darkest parts of the hotel I tried so hard to look past her into the shadows for the horror I was sure was going to come. 

I left the theatre breathless. Of 100 minutes of running time, 90 were an assault course. 

‘The Innkeepers’ is a visceral roller coaster of extreme genius. 

I can’t wait to see what Ti West does next. But if he lets me down, I’m sending him straight to the basement of the Yankee Pedlar.

About The Author

Ian White is an author, screenwriter and journalist. His book ‘Witchcraft and Black Magic in British Cult Cinema’ was recently published by Hemlock and he is a regular contributor to ‘Paranormal Underground’ and ‘Starburst’ magazines. He’s currently writing a new book and screenplay and his embarrassingly out-of-date website can be found at http://ianwhitelondon.wix.com/ian-white