Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
— The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Because of its past and the rumors swirling around it, a building — like Shirley Jackson’s Hill House or Robert Bloch’s Bates Motel — can suggest to an impressionable mind, an evil presence. A person stuck such a place for a whole weekend with a guy who tells her he saw the ghost of a dead woman there might be on edge. If she gets little sleep, drinks a bunch of crappy beer, and struggles with bouts of asthma, she might careen right off the edge.
In the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a hotel slated to close in two days, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), two slacker employees, plan to work, eat, and sleep in the soon-to-be-demolished building hoping to catch a ghost on tape.
The inn, according to legend, is haunted by the ghost of Madeline O’Malley, a young bride from the 1800s, who hanged herself in the basement after her lover broke her heart. Claire and Luke alternate working as a team and going solo, using their time away from the guests to do a little ghost hunting in the nearly empty hotel. Armed with an EVP (electronic voice phenomena) recorder and time on their hands, Claire and Luke hope to record Madeline to find out why she haunts. If they can, they’ll make names for themselves in the paranormal world and big things will happen for them — finally. They both research the stories and Luke builds a website to capitalize on their access to the hotel and his own, recent encounter with the spirit.
It sounds harmless, and it would be for people with fuller lives, but Claire and Luke don’t seem to have anything else going on outside of the hotel. Neither of them makes a call or mentions family or friends over the course of the weekend. This is it. Even sadder is that since the Yankee Pedlar Inn is closing, soon they won’t even have jobs. They have just two days to make their mark. Their desperation to make something of this haunting business combined with anxiety about their lack of options turns a simple pastime into a potentially dangerous obsession. Add a little unrequited crush into the mix and it could get ugly.
As the pair converse with the guests and each other, we see how their interest in the dead compares to that of the living. They can’t wait to finish talking with the mere mortals in the hotel, so they can crank up the EVP and hang out with Madeline. Luke is rude, and Claire is shy and socially inept. Even when Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), a former TV star Claire admires, comes to stay at the inn, Claire manages to insult her. She eventually apologizes to Leanne, leading the actress-turned-medium to delve into the spiritual history of the inn and add fuel to Claire’s paranormal fire. Claire’s attempts to interact with Madeline, however, are much sweeter and more heartfelt. Perhaps in communing with the ghost of the dead woman, she truly hopes to find a kindred spirit.
As the weekend progresses, Luke and Claire get punchy and start to lash out at each other. They’re wound up by the lack of sleep, claustrophobic living conditions, and a looming sense that something isn’t right. Claire gets more frantic. Agitated by the conditions, abject fear, and a few too many cans of Schlitz, she starts at every sound and puffs repeatedly on her rescue inhaler, gasping for air.
Ti West directed The Innkeepers in the actual Yankee Pedlar Inn in Torrington, Connecticut. His use of the location contributes to the mood of the film. The squeaking doors and creaking floors of an old New England inn serve as great backing vocals for the soundtrack of the film. Graham Reznick, the sound designer, uses those sounds along with some creative and scary tones to make us wonder what’s behind every door. The music, by Jeff Grace, is spare, but effective, reminiscent, at times, of Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores.
West and the cast and crew stayed at the inn during the entire shoot. Perhaps, he hoped to surround them with the same oppressive atmosphere he wrote into his film. He must have known that the best way to suffocate characters is to keep them confined in a constricted space and the best way to set a dreary mood is to shutter the windows and choke on the stagnant air. Maybe Madeline O’Malley likes it that way, but most live people don’t.