As a horror movie, The Innkeepers (2011) by Ti West was a weird mix conventional and refreshing, but I think what really matters is that it works. I say it is conventional because it makes extensive use of the common tropes in horror movies. From the way it is marketed to the set and all throughout the plot, it cannot establish itself more as a horror film. The setting – an old inn named Yankee Pedlar Inn – invokes a kind of feeling similar to the vibe that haunted houses or hotels (i.e. in The Shining) give off: a feeling that something is about to happen. This feeling could not be more affirmed by the characters who are actually looking for the abnormalities or the ghosts within the inn.
On the other hand, I find the movie’s approach to be refreshing; in that while everything in the movie was suggestive of the existence of the monster and the approaching terror, the movie never actually focused on the monster. I feel like it could have gotten away with not actually showing the ghost, if it wanted (although it would unlikely be as effective). The movie plays around with the different ways by which monstrosity can be made to manifest in a horror film, while sticking to the familiar. By this, I mean that although the movie does not necessarily feature a new and unique variety of monstrosity, the monster or the ghost is presented in a rather unique way that involves barely presenting it.
The monster was scarcely revealed in the movie and yet it works as a horror film. Much of the plot was dedicated to the development of the characters, which is why if you are expecting to be terrorized by the movie, you would probably get the impression that the movie is quite dragging. However, despite the monster not being shown explicitly, the movie works brilliantly in building up tension using sound. There are two scenes really pushed me towards the edge of my seat. Watching these felt like watching someone stretch out a piece rubber band in front of your face. They were intense and it was really cool how the movie pulled that off without actually showing any abnormal events. First is the part where Claire went looking for the ghost using her recorder during her shift late at night. In this part, more than the showcasing of the haunted-like features of the Yankee Pedlar Inn, I think what made the scene particularly effective was the sounds. In that scene, we are actually made to pay more attention to the little sounds (e.g. sound of a creaking door, footsteps, etc.) in anticipation of an abnormal sound being caught by the microphone. We are made to wait, anticipate, and expect something horrible or something we know we would not want to witness; and that makes it excruciating to watch. The second would be the scene where Claire points out that the monster is behind Luke (although not shown). The tension built up by Claire’s spooky speech and by Luke’s facial expression would make the audience feel horrified but at the same time, want to see what Claire was seeing – which is kind of the point of the movie: Where are the ghosts?
Where are they?
The movie revolves around Luke and Claire’s ghost-hunting activities brought about by the many horror stories that revolve around the Yankee Pedlar Inn over the years. At the start of the movie (when I figured this out), thought that if I knew that this was what the movie was about, I wouldn’t go watch it in the cinemas because that’s a cheap way of doing horror. I think that what makes horror horrible is that horror happens to the characters; not the characters seeking out the horror. However, as mentioned above, the movie scarcely revealed the monster. It prolongs the normality while the characters are seeking out the anomaly, which kind of draws the audience into the hunt more than the characters because that is what they came to see. At this point, the movie goes into a metaliterature mode asking itself (and the audience), “Where are the ghosts in this movie?”
At the same time, the question, “Why seek out horror?” is being tackled here. It draws the audience, particularly horror movie enthusiasts, to engage the character of Claire. Claire’s character includes an attribute that movie enthusiasts can identify to, because it is central to answering the question “Why horror?”: Curiosity. According to Noel Carroll, since the existence of the anomalous, impossible, or unknowable is central to the horror genre, the key to enjoying it lies in the pleasure derived from uncovering and revealing the nature of the anomaly. Therefore, in prolonging normality, the movie is actually depriving the audience of satisfaction and drawing them to Claire’s ghost-hunting. Should Claire be able to find the ghosts of the inn, the satisfaction she gains from feeding her “cognitive appetite” is shared with the audience. But what of the consequences? I guess Claire answers it for us.
Noel Carroll, “Why Horror?.” Horror, The Film Reader (Routledge, 2002).