Fantasia 2011: Ti West is a singular genius, and ‘The Innkeepers’ is his best film to date. (Review #2)

The Innkeepers

Directed and Written by Ti West

USA, 2011


Chuck Jones directed a trilogy of horror cartoons (Scaredy Cat, 1948, Claws for Alarm, 1954 and Jumpin’ Jupiter, 1955) featuring Porky Pig blissfully unaware that his life is in danger, while his pet cat, – Sylvester, naturally – only too aware of the danger, does his best to protect both his own skin and that of his master, Porky, from killer mice, ghosts and aliens.

The Inkeepers is not a film for the Porky’s of this world, those easily distracted, immune to menace, insensitive to fear. It is a film for the sensitive, hyper-vigilant Sylvester’s, the fraidy-cats amongst us.

In the case of The Innkeepers, our Porky and Sylvester are Luke (Pat Healy) and Claire (the amazing Sara Paxton). They are the only staff left supervising the Yankee Pedlar Inn on its last weekend of operation. Fortunately, the hotel only has a handful of guests, most memorably including Kelly McGillis as a former actress turned spiritualist. Since Luke and Claire have ample free time and are amateur ghost-hunters, they devote most of their time trying to find evidence of the inn’s ghost.

There is a sense in which Ti West is a man (wonderfully) out of step with time. He makes films using techniques and methods seemingly long abandoned. His films build menace and threat slowly, almost imperceptibly. Each isolated moment is easily dismissed, but for those paying attention the dread mounts drop by drop, until you are drowning in fear and the slightest, most miniscule thing: a piano key being played, a beer can falling down a flight of stairs, is enough to send you clawing the ceiling in fright.

If we say that West achieves the most scares with the least, by least we don’t mean least effort. The craftmanship of this film, in support of building that atmosphere of fear, is outstanding, especially the layered and creepy sound design.

There would be a temptation to arm the ghosthunters with video cameras and employ the modern arsenal of shaky-cam techniques to elicit fear. Instead, West arms Luke and Claire with headphones and a sound recorder, forcing both them and the audience to listen for the ghost. West’s work has been described as atmospheric and West does his best in The Innkeepers to film that atmosphere, to film what can be sensed but not seen.

West’s camera does not shake. It is in fact, slow, steady and silky smooth, almost as if West is consciously declaring that it is the audience that should shake and not the camera. The well-framed shots leave the sensitive in the audience studying every inch, deperately searching for traces of the invisible.

Let the Porky’s of this world sneer that The Innkeepers did not scare them. We Sylvester’s understand that this spooky ghost film is nothing less than a test of our evolutionary fight or flight response. When the inevitable Zombie holocaust hits, there will be a word for the Sylvester’s amongst us: survivors, while the blasé, no attention-span, sneeringly unafraid Porky Pig mother-fuckers will be so much Zombie chow.

For those with the patience for his slow-build cinematic magic, Ti West is a singular genius, and The Innkeepers is his best film to date.

– Michael Ryan

Visit the official Fantasia Film Fest website

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