For reasons I have yet to understand, Asheville has never become a horror-movie destination. There’s certainly a market here, but no one seems willing to try to build on it — and, believe me, I’ve tried to make it happen. (Whether it’s because no one wants to go through the birthing pains or because the genre tends to be ghettoized, I don’t know.) As a result of this, I only bumped into Ti West’s The Innkeepers (2011) because it was in the distributor’s awards season package of the year’s releases. I had avoided West’s previous film, The House of the Devil (2009), because I’d gotten it confused with a faith-based crapfest with a similar name. (I’ve since remedied that oversight.) Viewers who have seen The House of the Devil will recognize both the tone and the approach of The Innkeepers. Both films have small casts largely placed in a single location, and both spend most of their running time building atmosphere. In both cases, the films move from the mundane to the the vaguely disquieting to outright dread and finally to the big payoff. But it works better in The Innkeepers, which is basically nothing but a haunted hotel yarn involving a pair of wage slaves (the film’s tagline is “A ghost story for the minimum wage”) fending off boredom at an almost empty — and about to close — hotel by playing at being paranormal investigators. (It actually is finally revealed as something more than that, but I’ll leave that to the film.)
Of course, they get a lot more than they bargain for — otherwise, there’d be no movie. Evoking a moment (quite effectively) from Peter Medak’s The Changeling (1980) and generally utilizing a Kubrick-like approach to those long, empty hallways, West crafts a marvelously creepy film out of very little. But what finally sells The Innkeepers is the fact that the payoff really pays off — better than The House of the Devil did, and it wasn’t bad. West spins out the payoff moments far longer than you might think possible to terrific effect. I’ve seen the film three times — and it’s worked for me each time. I will not be overlooking West’s next picture, The Sacrament, even if it doesn’t play here.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Innkeepers Thursday, Aug. 8, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.