Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Innkeepers - Spaces Between

The composer John Cage once wrote a piece called 4'33, consisting of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. It can be interpreted as an artistic prank, a comment on the nature of music, the logical extension of musical or compositional theory, or an attempt to be provocative. I got to thinking about it because I think 4'33 highlights the importance of silence or space as a part of almost any creative work. Pauses accentuate sound, space highlights form, blank canvas calls attention to color. In silence and space lie all of the possibilities of what could come next, and the opportunity to contemplate what we've seen or heard. The Innkeepers makes good use of silence and space to tell a ghost story that is measured and sympathetic, almost to the point of being sad.

Claire and Luke work at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a historic hotel in its last weekend of operation. Their boss has already taken off, most of the hotel's rooms have already been stripped, and they have exactly three guests for the weekend. It's going to be a long shift, and they've got a lot of free time to fill. Luke is trying to get a ghost-hunting website up and running, using legends surrounding the Yankee Pedlar's own ghost (a spurned bride named Madeline O'Malley) to kick it off. So he and Claire are spending a bunch of time trying to pick up ghostly voices using recording equipment and trying to record ghostly manifestations. They're also occasionally taking care of the few guests they have and spending the rest of the time engaging in the sort of aimless, time-wasting banter universal to any customer service job. As the weekend wears on, strange things start happening, little by little - sudden drops in temperature, faint voices - and one last mysterious guest checks in, insisting on the now-closed honeymoon suite.

If this all sounds very small-scale, that's because it is. There aren't a lot of musical stings and sudden zooms and mysterious figures in ragged clothes floating toward the camera. It's an almost intimate story about a place and the people in it at a very specific moment in time, and how those things evoke something larger than the sum of their parts. It's an intimate story made up of long stretches of nothing interrupted by moments of something, like a spare melody being played very slowly, leaving plenty of room to let the notes hang in the air. 

There's more humor than you'd expect as well - Claire and Luke are very much the prototypical slackers in low-level service jobs, and though both aspire to something better, this movie captures them at a point in their lives where that hasn't happened yet, and much of their interaction consists of the sort of acerbic humor common to any service industry job, born out of the need to amuse yourself during stretches of downtime, with your customers (and their attendant frustrations) as your primary source of material. They have the camaraderie that comes with that sort of work environment as well, and you can see them edging toward some more honest form of connection as the movie goes on. It isn't critical to the story, but it feels true, and when bad shit starts happening (as it must for this to be anything remotely resembling a horror movie), it's the humanity we've seen up to that point that highlights the bad shit as silence highlights sound.

And when bad shit starts happening, it begins with the hotel itself. The Innkeepers does a very good job of capturing a sense of place and setting a mood early on. By having two people working an extended shift at a mostly empty hotel on the eve of its closing, you get the creepiness of an empty house multiplied by the singular loneliness of the overnight shift at pretty much any job, and it's the hotel's last weekend, which adds a certain sadness as well - the sadness of something once full of life coming to an end of its own. The hotel is dying, and its last employees and guests are ghosts of a sort as well. Every hallway and every room is really, really empty, so when they aren't, when there's something there, or something makes a sound, it's startling. 

This minimalist approach doesn't always pay off - there may be a little too much space between tense moments, or a little too much humor and humanity, and the sense of unease that's been built up by the more mysterious goings-on tends to dissipate, and ultimately it probably lessens the impact of the climax a little as well. Still as an exercise in atmosphere and commitment to a more deliberate approach to horror that forsakes sensationalism for building toward a payoff over the course of the entire film, it's very much worth considering. Director Ti West's previous long-form effort, The House of the Devil, had a similar slow-burn approach (and a different set of strengths and weaknesses), and I suspect that with each film, West is getting closer to something that's going to be an unqualified success. So I'll let this one hang in the air, contemplating what I've just seen and wondering what's going to come next.

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