The most innovative thing about writer-director Ti West's "The Innkeepers" (on DVD today) is how low-fi it plays. The gore is minimal, the music restrained, the body count limited. Call it the rebirth of the classic American horror picture.
Its very premise nods at Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining": Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are in charge of an ancient hotel during its last days, spooked by supernatural reminders of the building's bloody past. Impressively, it recreates the baroque unease that characterized the genre before the travesties of "Hostel" and "Saw" XXIV, or whichever squalid sequel they've reached by now. Partly this is stylistic. The film is shot in long, floating takes that luxuriate in the inn's creepiness rather than going for the cheap thrills of frenetic editing; the wan lighting leaches some of the color out, as though going for a sepia-tint effect.
But I think the real reason "The Innkeepers" works is because it has a sense of humor. The off-kilter jokiness of Ellen Burstyn's stricken mother in "The Exorcist," or the iconic "Here's Johnny!" of "The Shining" — a wry pop culture reference delivered even at the film's climax — amplify the dread on which the genre thrives. Tension builds up and gets released over and over, a pleasurably exhausting experience that most modern horror films, relentless factories for punishment that they are, so sorely lack.
In West's film, Claire and Luke together achieve a warm, authentic playfulness that makes the coming jolts all the more upsetting, the charming in-games of their boredom a nice foil for increasingly bizarre happenings. Paxton in particular gives a brave comic performance, waif-like, dorky, and asthmatic, flailing while trying to get a trash bag that's almost as big as her into a dumpster out back. She's the winning heart of "The Innkeepers," and her descent into terror all the more compelling for us having liked her. What a throwback.
Likable is not the word for Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), the ill-fated protagonist of Kubrick's paranoid fever dream. But he is funny, in that manic, tempestuous way of Nicholson's rococo period, when every character became a variation on the Jack persona. It's as though Torrance is trying always to tamp down the violent, alcoholic streak that Wendy alludes to in the early stages, and that erupts so spectacularly by the end.
"The Shining" is enough of a conundrum to merit a documentary about the various theories seeking to explain it, but attempting to piece together the hidden messages of Room 237 and "REDRUM" and rivers of blood seems to me a fool's errand. The gentle homages to "The Shining" in "The Innkeepers" — Steadicam pans down long hallways, doubts about the characters' sanity — are a useful reminder that Kubrick's vision is largely not one driven by narrative. Apart from the short setup at the beginning, it's almost static. All the parts jangling loose are in Jack and Danny's minds, the horror rooted in the atmosphere the film creates of coming unhinged. It's not for nothing that those old hotels look so much like Dickensian asylums.
What we're left with is a veritable history of violence, both Jack's and the Overlook Hotel's, and the sense that the blood flooding the eerie passageways has seeped up from within. Kubrick's slow-burning film, its fires stoked and banked with a steady, deliberate hand, suggests what may be the most frightening thought of all, that the "ghosts" are hallucinations and the real heart of darkness is a human one.