Let’s Scare Bryan to Death: Ti West’s THE INNKEEPERS with Emily von Seele – Daily Dead

Daily Dead

Welcome back, dear readers! It’s a new year, and it’s time for more new (to me) horror flicks. We’re kicking 2023 off with a flick from Ti West, a dude who had a hell of a 2022 with not one but two hit films in X and Pearl. But today we’re going to be taking a trip back into his earlier filmography, and our companion will be the great Emily von Seele. In addition to being a Senior Contributor right here at Daily Dead, you probably also know Emily as a regular co-host on the Dead Ringers podcast (I’m in the process of collecting all the Dead Ringers hosts as I’ve previously chatted with Nolan McBride and Philip Yount). Emily’s knowledge about horror films knows no bounds, and she brings an infectious enthusiasm to her discussion about the genre.

There’s no one I’d rather have join me for a stay at a quaint, small-town hotel that is most certainly haunted, and that’s precisely where we’re headed in West’s 2011 ghost story The Innkeepers. The film follows Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), two front desk workers at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a small hotel that’s scheduled to close its doors for good in just one week. Claire and Luke are the last employees at the hotel, swapping front desk duties while also trying to capture proof that the inn is haunted by the ghost of Madeline O’Malley, who is said to have hanged herself after being left at the altar. As Claire and Luke navigate the final days at the inn, including a few straggling guests like former-movie-star-turned-spiritualist Leeanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), they look to determine if the strange sights and sounds at the hotel belong to Madeline and what she might have in store for them.

As always, please be advised of this blanket spoiler alert, as we’ll be covering major plot points in the film. But first, Emily, do you remember your first time seeing The Innkeepers? What were your initial thoughts?

I initially saw the film when it hit VOD.  I was aware of it ahead of time and fell in love with the poster. I was already a huge fan of Ti West, thanks to The House of the Devil (which I had been fortunate to see in theaters). I don’t think The Innkeepers had a theatrical screening near me, but I was still psyched to see it. And I loved it. The setting was great, I loved the story, it was scary in all the right ways, and above all, I loved the characters. I could hang out with Claire and Luke all day long. They have a great chemistry together and Sara Paxton and Pat Healy really seemed to find that connection. Plus, I’m always a sucker for haunted house stories.

The Innkeepers is also my second foray into the works of Ti West, having previously caught The House of the Devil at a film festival a few years ago. How do you think this fits in with the rest of his filmography?

The Innkeepers didn’t disappoint. He had (especially at that stage of his career) a really deliberate sense of storytelling. Character and setting are as important to him as plot points, and he never glosses over those elements just to make things move along. It’s something that some viewers hate about his work, as it tends to make the proceedings a bit on the slow side, but I love it. In House of the Devil, he devoted a lot of time to getting to know the creepy house, and in The Innkeepers, he lets the relationships between the staff members be the central crux, especially when it comes to the existential stagnation that they’re feeling. For Claire in particular, she’s at that moment in her 20s that a lot of us face where we have no idea what we’re doing, we’re pretty sure that every decision that we have made up until this point in our lives is wrong, and we can’t figure out what to do next. And she has decided to fill that gap with ghost hunting at the creepy old hotel where she works. 

Overall, I think it’s one of his stronger films. From his earlier works, House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are top tier for me. I enjoyed The Sacrament and In the Valley of Violence as well, but they didn’t hook me in the same way (though it was cool to see him branching out and trying something different). He took a bit of a break and then came back last year with X and Pearl, and I think those were fantastic and represented some growth as an artist. He is willing to try new things and always approaches his films with an interesting perspective.

As someone who doesn’t usually notice the more technical elements of how a film comes together, this was a rare occasion where I noticed the dynamic use of cinematography. There are a lot of angled shots, and the camera moves around a lot with its characters. Was that something you noticed, and how well do you think it contributes to the overall product?

Yes! I love the way the camera promotes a sense of unease throughout this one. He employed similar techniques in The House of the Devil, and it’s really effective in both films. The camera helps to communicate that something is off even though we’re not actually seeing a ghost. The sound design is similarly effective. We hear a small sound and then nothing—a hint of something rather than the whole thing. There is a lot going on through visual and auditory cues that will set you on edge but won’t coalesce into a full-on scare. It’s just enough to make the hairs on your neck stand up.

You’d mentioned that some of the complaints about West’s work relate to the slower pace, but I think he uses both the camerawork and the relationship between Claire and Luke to keep us invested when things aren’t as active with the ghost story. What do you think separates a good slow burn from a boring movie?

I love this question! I think ultimately a good filmmaker works to keep the audience engaged. We’re used to that being through plot development, but it doesn’t have to be. Visual components, score, character work—they’re all pieces that come together to make a story great. So, if the director is able to utilize them well, the film is engaging. Here, when we’re taking a break from the ghosty stuff, we get to hang out with Claire and Luke. We have all of the drama from the few (but memorable) hotel guests. We take the time to explore the space a bit, and all the while, the camerawork is busy setting the tone and communicating little details to us visually. If none of this was happening, it would be a total bore. But those pieces add up to something engaging and interesting.

In addition to the cinematography and characters, I think the location choice was spot on for the film West wanted to make. The Yankee Pedlar Inn is the actual name of the hotel where the whole film was shot, and it gave me cozy Overlook vibes. Was this a hotel you’d stay in, either in spite of or because you knew it was haunted?

I would definitely give it a try. I love places with history to them (haunted or not). Though, my husband has a strict “no ghosts where we sleep” policy, so I’d be overnighting on my own. But I think it’s the perfect location for this story. It feels old, but it’s not falling down. It’s just “dusty” enough to fit into the story about a historic business in its final days. Plus, before I saw it, I had read that the Yankee Pedlar was the inn where West and his crew stayed when they were making The House of the Devil, and that gave this story a little extra glow in a way. Because he already had a connection to the place going into this project.

If I have a complaint about The Innkeepers, it’s that the great setup, setting, and character development doesn’t resolve in a very satisfying fashion, as Claire gets drawn down to the basement and dies of an asthma attack while being confronted by Madeline O’Malley. There was all this great buildup just to seemingly resolve in a fairly textbook ghost story ending. Did you have any issue with the ending at all?

I totally get that. It does seem a bit anticlimactic given everywhere this story has taken us. I think it works for me in spite of this for a couple of reasons. One is the way Sara Paxton plays it. Claire is beyond terrified when she is in that basement. It truly feels like life or death as she struggles with the doors, trying to get out, and knowing that Madeline is behind her. And then in the epilogue that follows, the film takes on a very melancholy tone. It’s not just the aftermath of a crazy night in a haunted hotel. We get a real sense of tragedy that comes from losing Claire. Luke is very robotic as he tries to explain everything to the police and just stops still when he sees her body being wheeled out. The moment carries a lot of weight.

The other thing that I like is how Claire’s death (along with the death of the old man—that was insanely creepy!) folds into Leanne’s vision about three ghosts. She wasn’t seeing the past, she was seeing the future. It doesn’t really undo the more mundane aspect of Clarie’s death, but that puzzle piece slides in nicely at the end, and I appreciate it.

Also, per the Wikipedia entry for the film, in the final shot there’s supposedly a faint outline of an apparition in the hotel room before the door slams and the credits roll. I missed that completely and honestly couldn’t see it when I went back to watch for it again. Am I just really not observant??

Is that a thing? No, I’ve never noticed that! I always just see the very still room and am tortured when the camera sits still for just a little too long before the door slams.

Being just over ten years removed from the original, I suppose it’s a little soon to be talking about a possible remake (although I suppose that didn’t stop the folks who remade Cabin Fever). But do you think there’s room for a revisit to the Yankee Pedlar? Perhaps through a sequel or even a prequel? If so, would you want West behind the wheel, or are there any other directors you’d want to take a swing?

I’d be down! More stories of ghosts in creepy hotels, please! I don’t think West would be into it—he tends not to want to retread old territory (which is why I think there is such a difference in style and tone between X and Pearl). But I would be really interested in seeing another director step in to do a sequel. I’m thinking Johannes Roberts should tackle it like he did with The Strangers: Prey at Night. New story, completely different vibe. Maybe it can be set in the present day and the hotel has been sitting empty (well, mostly empty), and some dumb kids go to check it out and are haunted by the ghost of the old man and Madeline O’Malley. And then Claire can pop up in the middle as the helpful ghost to try to save the dumb kids (à la Chris Kattan in the House on Haunted Hill remake from 1999). I would totally watch that. And we can even invite Pat Healy back to be the grizzled sad sack who warns the dumb kids to stay out because “that place is no good.”


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Author: Bryan Christopher
Daily Dead

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