With A Most Horrific Year, Senior Staff Writer Randall Colburn analyzes and reflects on the most critically acclaimed horror movie of every year, starting in 2015 and moving backwards. Spoilers are guaranteed.
The Innkeepers (2011)
Worldwide Gross: $78,396
Certified Fresh: 79%
It’s no great stretch to say that depression is a common symptom of the unemployed. The underemployed, too, aren’t immune. I don’t need to cite studies, graphs, or charts. Just think back to those first few weeks out of college or that second month of unemployment after getting laid off. Have you ever felt more helpless?
It’s tempting when you’re older to look back on the freedom you had being underemployed. I think of Kevin Spacey in American Beauty. Reflecting on a summer of flipping burgers, he recalls: “All I did was party and get laid.” Dude, fuck off. I got laid when I worked at McDonald’s, too, but I worked at McDonald’s. And flipping burgers isn’t fun. It’s stressful, sweaty, and your palms get burned to shit.
My worst summer of unemployment was also the summer of my first love. I was in college and couldn’t even get a job in the cafeteria. I ended up at Wal-Mart, working with a giant group of other losers to help rearrange the store. It was a six-week gig. I made minimum wage. Every day I would leave feeling like Sammy from John Updike’s “A&P”, feeling “how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter” as sick sunshine skated around on the asphalt.
It was around that same time I started seeing monsters in my closet.
The Innkeepers isn’t about monsters. It’s about ghosts. Well, sorta. It takes place at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a cute, historic hotel that’s on the verge of closing. While their boss is away, twentysomethings Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) check people in and monitor the lobby with drowsy eyes. The only enjoyment they can find is in the possibility that the hotel itself is haunted. They take video and try to capture EVPs (electronic voice phenomena). Claire revels in the story of Madeline O’Malley, a bride who allegedly hung herself back in the 1800s. After the arrival of an aging actress (Kelly McGillis) and a somber old man (George Riddle), the myths begin to become reality. Or do they?
Ambiguity is key to The Innkeepers, which in itself is enough to separate it from the rest of the year’s horrors. 2011 positively brimmed with sequels: the Final Destination series saw its fifth installment, Hostel its third, and the Paranormal Activity franchise reached the peak of its powers with an entry directed by Catfish alums Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. Scream even got a long-awaited fourth installment while The Human Centipede hoped for another strike of lightning with its own stomach-churning sequel. While some of these movies are better than others, none of them could necessarily be described as either subtle or ambiguous, which are key aspects to the work of The Innkeepers’ writer/director, Ti West.
West had previously received huge accolades two years prior with his slow-burning ‘80s period piece The House of the Devil, a movie that helped propel the “mumblegore” movement that also produced 2011’s You’re Next, a brutal slasher from filmmaker Adam Wingard that distinguished itself with vivid personality and curiously subdued performances. Though You’re Next was also critically acclaimed (and did much better at the box office), it lacks the elegance of The Innkeepers, as well as its intriguingly opaque themes.
Still, You’re Next is heads and shoulders better than the rest of the year’s indie horror scene. Lucky McKee’s The Woman, for example, is most assuredly a striking film, but the extremity of its material does more to alienate than embrace. And then there was Kevin Smith’s out-of-nowhere Red State, a film that’s generated an undeserved fondness over the years simply for being such a shocking pivot for Smith, who nobody thought had a spontaneous bone left in his body. Red State’s first half features some sharp writing and an incredible performance by Michael Parks, but its final act devolves into an endless barrage of assault rifles. Also, its relentless bloodshed is continually undercut by the film’s lame-duck nihilism.
“Mainstream horror is aimed at the lowest common denominator,” West told The A.V. Club that year. To me, that means “loud.” Bad horror always wants to be loud. West subverts this idea in The Innkeepers. “All the jump scares,” he says, “they’re not actually scares. All the actual scares are played very straight. That was my idea, to subvert expectations and have some of those funny moments be punctuated by music stings and all the scary moments be played violent.”
One thing West never explicitly tells us in The Innkeepers is that Claire is depressed. It’s good writing. When Leanne, the actress staying in the hotel, asks Claire if she’s an aspiring performer, Claire is humiliated to say she’s not. She doesn’t want to work in a hotel her whole life (nor can she, what with the Yankee Pedlar closing), but to have nothing else to look forward to makes her feel “like an asshole.” Plenty of people have these moments in their 20s: You’ve been to college, or dropped out of it, only to emerge on the other side with even less of an idea what it is you want to do. That’d be depressing for anybody, but it’s clear that Claire’s feeling it that much more.
West said he wanted Paxton’s real-life vibrancy and goofiness to be reflected in her portrayal of Claire, and her performance is so impressive for precisely that reason. Because, on paper, Claire is awkward, paranoid, and socially anxious. One thing you don’t see in film too often is how peppiness is often a mask for depression. Depressed adults are rarely sullen or withdrawn. More often, they’re annoyingly present, trying far too hard to present a portrait of enjoyment. Depression is desperation.
And Claire is desperate. Not for a new job, new friends, or a new life, but for justification. She wants justification that this job in this town at this moment in time is her destiny. And the only way she’ll know that is to kill the boredom. Boredom lies at the root of so much depression. To be aimless is to be bored. To be bored is to be depressed.
That’s why there needs to be ghosts.
My boredom bred ghosts, too. During my summer at Wal-Mart, I turned to my girlfriend and my Christian faith for justification, but they persevered. I’d lay in bed at night, alone in my apartment, convinced that there were monsters in my closet. I could see their shapes, just barely discernible, in the darkness. I’d close my eyes and think of my girlfriend, but her image in my head grew fangs, horns, teeth.
One night, I sat in my car out front, convinced that I saw a soft light glowing through the front windows.
Something was waiting for me.
I slept on my friend’s couch the next two nights.
I wanted my girlfriend to see them, too. She did, and that’s when she broke up with me.
Horror movies around the turn of the decade were rarely about anything. Sure, you could graft meaning onto them. The brutality of torture porn, for example, was Hollywood’s response to Abu Ghraib. Or that Hostel was really about American xenophobia post-9/11. On the whole, however, horror of this era circled around the same themes that film has long been built around, whether that be morality or community.
The Innkeepers, on the other hand, was clearly born out of America’s economic crisis, which was only beginning to pull out of its nosedive as West prepared the film. Still, even as the situation improved, the effects of The Great Recession could be felt. In 2012, an analysis conducted by The Associated Press revealed that 53% of recent college grads were either jobless or underemployed. Young Americans have perhaps never felt more aimless than they were when West was preparing and releasing this movie.
Claire is excited when she first begins hearing whispers and witnessing paranormal activity. She takes Luke into the basement to try and commune with the spirit of Madeline O’Malley, but her excitement is offset by Luke’s reluctance. In the film’s most chilling scene, West fixes his camera on Claire’s face as she glimpses the ghost. “She’s right behind you,” she says to Luke, wonder in her eyes, her voice. “She’s coming closer.” We don’t see what Claire sees, and Luke doesn’t want to. He runs away.
But is he running from the ghost or from Claire? And what does it mean when the ghosts finally turn on Claire, causing her to crack her skull when tumbling down the stairs? She locks herself in a room in the basement, but all she’s done is trap herself with the wretched, rotting ghost of Madeline.
And then she’s dead.
Maybe it’s by Madeline’s hand. Or maybe it’s from the cut on her skull. Or maybe it’s her asthma. That Luke reveals she had lost her inhaler says something. But Claire lost more than that. In bringing the ghosts to life, she lost her grip.
Delusions will do that to you.
Depression is lonely. And depression will only make you lonelier. I watched people leave me when I struggled. And I’ve left others. There’s a sadness to The Innkeepers in the end; Claire was so alone when she died, consumed entirely by the lies of her mind. Luke later reveals he was trying to save her, but by that point she had already locked the door, both literally and figuratively.
“There’s nothing anybody could’ve done,” Leanne tells Luke in the closing moments. It’s the film’s final line, and I’m not sure how West wants us to feel about it.
I’m not sure how I feel about it, either. I guess I just hope she’s wrong.