What makes a good ghost story on film? Setting, characters, central idea, basic plot - lots of things, in fact. The Innkeepers is an interesting example of a film that seems to have everything going for it, but somehow failed to win over this ghost story lover. Why? It just lacks clout.
The setup is good. The Yankee Pedlar Inn (a real hotel in Torrington, Connecticut) is closing down because it's losing money. It's a quaint old place, allegedly haunted, and in its final days under the care of Luke and Claire. Luke (Pat Healy) is a classic pretentious dropout type who has set up a website cataloguing supposed paranormal events at the hotel. Claire (Sara Paxton) is young, perky, not quite sure what she's going to do with her life. When the film begins there are only a handful of guests and the innkeepers are planning a long weekend of ghost-hunting. They are seeking to contact the ghost of tragic Madeline O'Malley, who hanged herself after being jilted on her wedding night.
The setting looks good, the premise is fine, the lead actors are more than competent. Luke and Claire have a slightly spiky chemistry and - as the film goes on - it becomes clear that he has more than friendly feelings for her. During her night shift Claire has a series of strange experiences, including the old 'piano playing itself' gimmick. This is nicely done but nothing special. Conventional methods such as EVP recordings are used but not to any great effect. In fact we do not hear most of the really weird stuff, which seems an odd choice by writer-director Ti West.
The arrival of Leanne, a faded TV star (played by Kelly McGillis) who is now a spiritual healer, throws another ingredient into the mix. Luke is contemptuous of Leanne but Claire asks for her help. The resulting quasi-seance foreshadows later tragedy. Things move towards a climax, but not at any great pace or with much conviction. There are shocks, now and again, but most of the time there is a lack of energy, a sense that we've seen it all before. At times I felt The Innkeepers might be a tribute to old-school TV movies of the Seventies, which were low-budget and seldom high concept. West's The House of the Devil was, after all, a homage to early Eighties horror.
Without giving too much away, I was left thinking 'Is that it?' The Innkeepers is too thin for a feature film and might have worked better as an episode in a TV series. It also contains too many hackneyed ideas, especially the 'Oh I'll just go down into the spooky dark place for no good reason' moment. It is a film that promises a reasonable quantity of unpretentious chills and fails to deliver. It's a flat-footed attempt to do something old-fashioned well. It passes the time. It's not too bad.