Dir. Ti West
Most horror films have to spend so much time setting up their clumsy atmosphere of dread they can't take the risk of injecting humor in the offering, less they spoil the mood of blood-soaked fear. Ti West's haunted inn fright show, by contrast, spends the vast majority of its screen time making light of the apparatus of scary films before courageously charging into the real thing in its final act. This is no accident: Mr. West fully intends to have his cake of fear and eat it, too, every terrifying mouthful laced with blood-red cyanide.
The set-up is straight out of horror 101: A young couple of desk clerks, beautiful-but-aimless Claire (Sara Paxton) and wittily sarcastic Luke (Pat Healy), divvy up the hours working the last weekend shift in the existence of an old, supposedly haunted inn, which is going out of business and being demolished shortly after its doors are closed. Naturally, the inn comes with its own ghost story: a young woman many years ago was so distraught at being stood up on her wedding day at the inn, she hung herself in the basement. Luke and Claire spend their time together quipping back and forth, complaining about the other guests in the hotel -- including a mother (Alison Bartlett) with her young son and an aging actress (Kelly McGillis) who has turned to psychic healing as a vocation -- and attempting to record contact with the ghost they believe is haunting the hallways.
West, who had a good deal of break-out success with 2009's The House of the Devil, is clearly well-studied when it comes to the genre, with homages to previous horror staples (obviously, with its haunted hotel setting, The Shining can't be too far away) mixed in with his deceptively sharp storytelling. But what's more, his screenplay, which moves at its own, easy going pace until the last act, is captivating enough even when it's not trying to unnerve you. Claire and Luke's relationship, silly and sophomoric as it may be, rings true, as does Claire's general ennui. When questioned by the elderly actress what it is she actually does, as opposed to working at the front desk of a failed inn, she can't answer except to become enraged at the nature of the question. Paxton, sweet and winsome, plays Claire as a lovable nerd, the girl who's entirely attractive to men like Luke because her beauty is downplayed so much by her approachability. She walks as if she's always slightly off-balance, teetering forward because her hunched shoulders remain so rigid. Luke, as played astutely by Healy, is equally amusing, though his character shifts in the course of events far more than Claire does.
The horror, such as it is, never entirely goes for the jugular, but it certainly keeps you on your toes, if not the edge of your seat. By the end, it's entirely possible West has slightly overplayed his hand, creating such a warm and pulpy atmosphere that the ending, much more serious than the rest of the film would suggest, can't entirely work. Still, with a solid cast and tightly woven script, it succeeds in heart with a genre that's generally all too satisfied with tearing out the rest of your organs.