Ghost related horror films are a strange sort of movie. We normally get the same tropes in each film. The banging doors, the eerie noises, the jump scares. Some do it well (‘Poltergeist’), some not so much (‘The Haunting’ remake). I sat down recently to watch two of the newer installments, one that has been getting a lot of praise, and one that had a trailer that looked so stupid, I figured it might be fun for a few laughs.
So let’s get started with ‘The Innkeepers’.
This is the latest full length feature from Ti West (House of the Devil, V/H/S). Though I was not the biggest fan of ‘HOTD’, I appreciated the techniques it used, and I was a fan of the way West was able to build tension without the need for constant dialogue or CGI demons flying at the screen. So when I heard that ‘The Innkeepers’ was really good, and a return of the actual scary ‘ghost film’, I figured that it was worth to take a look at.
The story is simple. Two desk clerks, Claire and Luke, are tasked with working the last weekend at a soon-to-be closed Inn called The Yankee Peddler. The Inn is reportedly haunted by a vengeful spirit who died in the building, and whose body was found in the cellar. They only have a few customers left including a mother and her young son, an aging actress, and an old man who had at one point in his life spent his honeymoon there.
Claire and Luke could be best described as a couple of hipsters who were up to no good, until some ghosts started making trouble in their neighborhood. They both decide that since the inn is practically empty, that they will use this last weekend as a chance to do a little paranormal investigating. Slowly, and I mean SLOWLY, we start getting strange noises, soon the piano is playing by itself, and the sense of dread falls over the inn. One night while up in bed, a terrifying ghost is propped up in next to Claire, and we know she IS afraid of them ghosts. The actress, who is also a new age medium, warns Claire of the spirits in the building, and mostly to not go into the basement. Does she heed this warning? Does any white person in a horror movie heed this warning?
Essentially, that is really all there is to say about what the movie’s plot is. So how does it stack up? Unfortunately, I would put this in the medium level of Good to Bad Ghost Films, or GTBGF for short. West again shows his ability to build suspense, and it is definitely effective. The scenes in the cellar are great, and genuinely scary, including a horrifying sequence in which Claire is able to make contact with the ghost. The film relies very little (if any) on CGI, and most of the tension is built by the excellent sound design and editing.
Your opinion on the film will come down to two simple details. One; if you have the patience to wait a very long time until anything happens. As I’ve stated in previous reviews, I like a slow-burn film, however this film’s burn feels like it is smoldering. It takes a long time until anything really scary happens, and some scenes linger on for minutes with no payoff. Sometimes I wanted to scream ‘DO SOMETHING’ at the television, when we watched for what felt like a very long time as someone listened to static on an EVP recorder. The film is split up into chapters, which I didn’t care for as a stylistic choice. I think this is an instance as something that started almost as a stage play, and then was turned into a film. It also ends with one of the most useless epilogues in history, only to provide a cheap last frame scare, and it doesn’t work.
The second factor in your enjoyment/dislike of this film will come down to if you like the central characters. As I said, they are most definitely written to be hipsters, right down to the skinny jeans and ironic ‘aren’t ghosts stupid? Let’s go look for them’ attitude. I never felt invested in the characters, I didn’t like them, and they were honestly kind of boring. The actors do a fine job with what they have to work with, but I think the essential problem with the movie is that the character writing isn’t that good. I never feel like we should be rooting for these people, and more than anything, they are just annoying and pretentious. If this was a purposeful move on the part of West then he did a good job, but I think he likes these characters and the hopes were that we would associate with them as well. It feels like elitism and if you don’t get them, it is your fault for not liking the film and something like that tends to rub me the wrong way.
When I first saw the trailer for ‘Ghost Encounters’, I believe my first reaction was ‘You have got to be kidding me’. Another found-footage film, this one based off of the recent surge of ghost-hunting shows. The ghosts in the trailer had a definite CGI twinge to their faces, which is something that is a big no-no in my book, and even more so when it comes to CGI ghosts.
So I was pleasantly surprised to find out that this is actually a pretty good little horror flick. I would go as far as to put it on the ‘Good’ side of the GTBGF scale. It is always nice to have something come out of nowhere and then to actually enjoy it.
The conceit of the film is that a new paranormal investigation show called Grave Encounters, had gone to an abandoned sanitarium and never returned. Only their footage was found. A gaping flaw in the basic premise is that most avid film fans will notice immediately that the general idea that this was found footage was ridiculous as the footage was obviously edited with tracking shots, voiceovers, and a more. Though this is definitely a flaw that distracts from the idea of found footage, it was for me, quickly forgivable, as the strength of the movie is that it is a lot of fun.
While in less capable hands, this could have been just the basic bump-in-the-night sort of movie, ‘Grave Encounters’ actually took the time to understand it’s source material. If I were to watch the simulated opening credits of the film, I would honestly not be able to tell the difference between this and a show like Ghost Adventures or Paranormal State. It is an amalgamation of these types of shows. The lead investigator is pretty much the doppelganger of Zak Bagans with his coifed hair and frat boy attitude. All the staples of ghost-hunting reality television are present in this film, down to the ridiculous lingo. The film works automatically as parody because we know these clichés; we recognize the staples of the setup. They even are smart enough to include the testimonials of the locals and the caretakers (including a hilarious scene with a paid off groundskeeper), right down to the ‘medium’ who accompanies the team.
What works so well is that we are accustomed to this setting. On the ‘reality’ shows, we get the sounds, the floating orbs, the strange voice in the static, or someone yelling that something pushed them or it got cold. But we never see anything on those shows, other than some trumped up un-explanation of the paranormal. With ‘Grave Encounters’ we get a look at what would happen if a place was really haunted, what if it went beyond entertainment, and what if the ghosts didn’t appreciate being yelled at by a dude in a skull t-shirt.
Once the paranormal stuff starts early on in this film, it does not let up until the final seconds. The old hospital is the perfect setting as they already have an air of horror attached to them, and the film uses that to its full advantage. The movie has a lot of intentional humor in it, but at the same time doesn’t forget it is supposed to be scary. Though I’m not a fan of what the ghosts look like, I will admit that the movie got me a couple of times, and I was pretty creeped out toward the end. Moreover, this movie is a heck of a lot of fun. Sure, it is kind of silly in a way, but it would be the perfect film for a late night viewing with a few friends, just to watch them jump and then laugh.
It is nice to see the film use and understand its premise in such a way to make it feel similar and fresh at the same time. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, which again was a complete surprise to me, and if you are annoyed at these types of shows, you will definitely get your chance to see how they would react to the real version of the situation they attest to seek out each week.