Upstairs Downstairs: The Innkeepers

FILM, Film Festivals

At the New Zealand International Film Festival: Ti West’s old-new horror movie.

When a film leaves a physical impression on your body, you know that it has either done something very right, or very wrong. With Ti West’s fifth feature, The Innkeepers, it is most definitely a case of the ‘very right’; the indie genre director building tension and fear so effectively that by the film’s conclusion, my shoulders were aching from the subconscious strain.

The two leads in this lo-fi ghost story—Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy)—are 20-something, lowest-pay-grade front desk minions at the gnarly old Yankee Pedlar hotel. Working a skeleton crew on the ageing house’s final weekend of business (before it shuts up shop for good), the mismatched pair alternately annoy and entertain the guests (whose number can be counted on one hand), and sequentially scope the rooms in the house—replete with specialised psychic recording equipment—to try to capture evidence of an apparent haunting. Needless to say, our comedic duo disobey almost every cardinal rule of horror the genre and an ethereal shit-storm ensues.

Refreshingly original, The Innkeepers combines an old school aesthetic with modern sensibilities to create a satisfying horror-comedy mash. Gone are the ultra-serious mockumentary trappings of a Paranormal Activity or The Last Exorcism; instead, The Innkeepers brings laughs and a cinematic quality courtesy of inventive camera work and some great framing (even if they go a tad heavy on the Dutch angles for my liking). Paxton and Healy bring a likeable, if slightly odd chemistry to their partnership, which works well for the film—especially the comedic elements. Unfortunately, the script occasionally fails them early on with predictability issues neutering some of the laughs. Happily, as soon as the tension mounts, things seem to tighten up all round, including the dialogue. A barely recognisable Kelly McGillis applies her chops to great—and ironic—effect in the primary supporting role of Leanne Rease-Jones, an ageing actor-turned-psychic who attempts to help proceedings whilst simultaneously presenting as unreasonably prickly.

Having director West present at the screening brought some fascinating titbits to light regarding the production, such as just how personal the film was. The Yankee Pedlar setting is an actual historic hotel where Ti and the cast/crew stayed while working on his prior outing, The House of the Devil. He claims that most of the minor pieces of action were based on incidents that actually occurred during their stay—this despite self-identifying as a sceptic. A believer-vs-sceptic duality runs throughout The Innkeepers, both in the terms of the character perspectives and the story itself, and West cleverly constructs the entire film to viably support either position depending on your personal bent. Regardless of which camp you fall into, he brings to bear his considerable skill in creating the ‘long scare’, keeping us on the edge of our seat with the threat of described menace hovering, before eventually bringing it home without the need for lavish CGI effects.

The sound and music personnel (including Sound Designer Graham Reznick and original music from Jeff Grace) have done an excellent job creating a fitting aural backdrop to the film, commendable in that they covered the humorous, tension-building, and frightful moments equally well without it ever coming off as a disjointed affair.

I would be interested in seeing West apply his talents and resources to a completely different genre, and from his comments I inferred that this may be a very real possibility in the near future. Despite some shakes early on, The Innkeepers won me over with its shrewd blend of ’70s horror throwback and newer gestures towards the genre, as well as its warm, lo-fi charm. Don’t be fooled though: the film doesn’t let you off easily. My shoulders can attest to that!

‘The Innkeepers’, Dir. Ti West
USA, 2011; 102 minutes
Featuring: Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis, George Riddle, Alison Bartlett, Jake Schlueter, Lena Dunham.
Screening: Auckland, Wellington. For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit

Filed under: FILM, Film Festivals


Jacob Powell has been contributing to The Lumière Reader since 2005. He writes freelance on cinema and other topics both online and occasionally in print. He also works as an Auckland-based university librarian specialising in digital AV media and research collections.