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Monday, 8 October 2012


Pardon the badly censored swear in the title. Recently, I watched two films that have a lot in common but couldn't be more different. THE INNKEEPERS is a recent haunted hotel story by Ti West and GRAVE ENCOUNTERS is a fairly recent 'found footage' type effort about a (supposedly) haunted asylum. Both feature protagonists obsessed with documenting supernatural events, both have a palpable sense of tension and suspense, and both are horror, but are in many ways opposite sides of the same coin.

"Am I dead? Of CORPSE I am!"

THE INNKEEPERS focuses on Luke and Claire (a very funny Pat Healy and super sweet Sara Paxton), as they staff a hotel on the last weekend before it closes its doors for good. A very small number of guests are in attendance, but otherwise Luke and Claire don't have much to do other than joke about and get drunk. Luke's working on a website about the hotel and its tragic past, and Claire convinces him that now is the perfect opportunity to try and get solid proof that a woman's ghost haunts the place. So, it's with audio recorder in hand that she starts (by herself) recording the ambient noise in each room to see if she can capture any peculiar activity.

The Innkeepers appears indicative of Ti West's M.O.: very slow, deliberate pace, before a final blast of energy. His previous film HOUSE OF THE DEVIL utilized this approach, but whereas I found it got a bit silly (I know, this coming from a guy whose favorite book is Night of the Crabs) The Innkeepers is far more successful. I wouldn't call the majority of it a comedy, so much as humorous. Luke and Claire's dialogue is written to be realist (not realistic; there is a difference) and positively sparkles. Hmm, that was an unnecessarily fruity sentence. When an angry female guest complains to Luke, and says "I'm in room 254" he responds with "I know. I work in the hotel." There are brief moments of fear, but these are achieved mainly through a fantastic use of long stretches of time in which you're certain something is bound to happen. It is that rare film: one that makes you question if what you saw was real. Were those eyes in the darkness? Was there something wrong with that shadow? Probably not, but you can't help but wonder...

The only things that let The Innkeepers down is the slightness to it - it very much feels like a set-up to a punchline, its predictability and a couple of potential plot holes (that I won't mention as they incorporate major spoilers). Maybe there are more themes at work, and sometimes the journey is more important than the destination, but these things stopped the film from being a 'must-recommend'. The last five or so minutes are pretty intense, though.

Something on your face, mate.

Next: GRAVE ENCOUNTERS. If the words 'found footage' make you die a little inside, then you've probably avoided this. I did, and at a great disservice. It's brilliant, but deceptively so. The set-up is no great shakes: a documentary film crew for a ghost show (Grave Encounters) film in different 'haunted' places. For this, their sixth (and ultimately final) show, they spend the night in an abandoned mental hospital. The first half an hour, maybe, is a little boring and doesn't do much to get your attention as the crew (belligerent presenter Lance, cute 'occult specialist' Sasha, tech guys TJ and Matt, and 'psychic' Houston) set up, do cut-aways, and basically do very little. We get some insight into the bullshit behind the scenes - bribing a gardener to make a ghost story up; the psychic is an actor - which is interesting, but it's when they start to explore the building that things really kick off.

Are there ghosts in the building? Several shots are set up to reveal very clear (and obvious) answers, such as a window opening on its own and a moving wheelchair, but it's as the night progresses that things get more messed up. The caretaker is supposed to let them out at 6am, so where is he? Why is it still dark? Why can't everyone hear each other over the radios, even though they apparently work fine? What "manipulated Sasha's hair"? [Which leads to one of the many fun elements as everyone else tries to convince the 'spirit' to manipulate their hair]. These are people who want to believe, but are too cynical to take things seriously. Or rather, the potential danger seriously. If there are ghosts, what harm can they do? Plenty, it turns out.

I thought Cabin in the Woods goes balls to the wall (it does) but Grave Encounters takes its premise and delivers again, and again, and again. Just as you think they're going to stick with typical 'fleeting glimpses of things' the filmmakers dial it up a notch. Then another notch. Then go "Nuts to this" and throw in ideas that were (to me) completely out of left field but utterly ingenious (let's just say, that although it's established the building is very big, that's not the reason everyone gets lost).

This film also makes you watch for things that probably aren't there, although I'm CONVINCED that there are points when something is literally over a character's shoulder. Just for a moment. It's as suspenseful as The Innkeepers, with an effective a pay-off, but more so. The Innkeepers unnerves you, Grave Encounters scares the shit out of you. I didn't think a horror film (let alone a modern one) could do that (although Insidious was really creepy in places) so for that alone it should be applauded.

Final note: don't ever, ever use a building's service tunnels if you can help it.



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