The 6th Annual Toronto After Dark Film Festival, 8 Nights of Horror, Sci-Fi, Action, and Cult Movies runs Oct 20-27, 2011 at the Toronto Underground Cinema. For complete festival info visit www.torontoafterdark.com.
The final screening of Toronto After Dark 2011 was The Innkeepers, the highly anticipated haunted hotel story from Ti West. West was at the festival for an intro to the film and a Q&A afterwards. The Innkeepers closing night gala was one of the hottest tickets of the festival. The ticket holder line wrapped around the side of the building, where people seemed content to wait in the rain. Oddly enough, the pass-holder line seemed to have doubled in size, something I can’t even begin to understand.
Preceding The Innkeepers was a short film called The Lady Paranorma from director Vincent Marcone. The animated short was about a shunned woman of a small town who could hear the dead. The lovely animation reminded me of something Tim Burton might produce, and the poetic narration really added to the mystery and charm of the film.
Back to The Innkeepers.
I checked out West’s most popular film, The House of the Devil, a little late in the game. I really enjoyed the film (check out my review), the pacing in particular was remarkable. The House of the Devil felt unique in today’s world of ‘jump scare’ horror, and more of a harkening back to the days of 80’s horror movies. West has been labelled as a skilled ‘slow burn’ filmmaker, which he admits he doesn’t fully understand, as he feels he is simply treating the audience as intelligent moviegoers by not overdoing the scares and gore. However, West also stated that he was happy for the ‘slow burn’ compliments. I definitely acknowledge West’s pacing acumen, but am much more impressed with his ability to make drastic tonal shifts in the narrative. The House of the Devil feels like a comforting type of horror film for a while, creepy but not oppressively scary, however West pulls the rug out from underneath the viewer with grisly violence and horrific plot twists. A tonal shift is an ambitious filmmaking device, but an extremely effective one in the right hands. West pulled it off in The House of the Devil. Would he use the same technique for The Innkeepers, and more importantly, would it be just as effective?
The Innkeepers is probably best described as a buddy-workplace-comedy-ghosthunting-horror film. The story follows two employees of a failing hotel, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy). The Yankee Pedlar Inn is set to close shop within the week. Only the second floor of the hotel is open, the others have been cleared out, save for the beds. Instead of dwelling on their soon to be lost jobs, Claire and Luke have an agenda for their final shifts. The Yankee Pedlar has a history of tragedy and Luke has seen some of the paranormal activity first hand. In these final days Claire and Luke are determined to capture something on film or audio tape that would prove the existence of the Pedlar’s ghosts.
The Innkeepers has all the charm in the world. The dialogue in West’s script is intelligent and funny. The performances of Paxton and Healy only add to the already effective writing. Healy is hilariously sarcastic, while Paxton’s portrayal of Claire results in one of the most likeable characters of recent memory. A particular scene has Claire trying to throw out a heavy garbage bag into a dumpster. Her ingeniously awkward and feeble attempts could not have possibly been scripted as they appear on the screen.
The atmosphere of The Innkeepers is reminiscent of light comedic horror films like Ghostbusters or something by Joe Dante, however this is only for a portion of the duration. As the characters become more deeply enmeshed in the haunting of the Yankee Pedlar, the paranormal activity shifts from creaking doors and strange sounds, to truly terrifying manifestations. At no point during the first half of the film will the audience be concerned for Claire and Luke, however the second half forces the viewer to challenge this notion of perceived safety.
The Innkeepers had the potential to be one of the best light-comedic-horror movies I have ever seen, but the shift in tone took the story to a much darker place, and as a result, The Innkeepers becomes a much more important horror film. Much like in The House of the Devil, the tonal shift in The Innkeepers is a very effective bit of filmmaking. West seems discontent to sit back and watch the horror genre rely on buckets of gore and jump-scares. I welcome what he is doing with open arms, as the more variety we have in the horror genre, the better. The Innkeepers is both a very funny comedy and a frightening paranormal mystery. The film is a great success from a critical standpoint, and I hope that it gets the audience it deserves.