Written, directed and edited by Ti West
Sara Paxton: Claire
Pat Healy: Luke
Kelly McGillis: Leanne Rease-Jones
George Riddle: Old Man
Long before Kevin Williamson achieved fame and fortune pointing out cliches in slasher movies, horror fans had it all figured out. We knew that you're supposed to drink heavily, split up and not carry a flashlight with you when you're investigating strange noises at night in the woods. We knew that every monster has a weakness (even the King of the Monsters went down when the Oxygen Destroyer was used against him) and that mad scientists would inevitably be brought down by their own evil creations. And deep in our hearts of hearts we know that real zombies are shuffling moaners, not track and field medalists. Yes, that meant horror movies could get repetitive from time to time. But the pleasure of watching movies in the genre isn't always in finding something new (though that is a treat). Sometimes you just want to see what someone does with a premise and a cast. There's only twelve bars to the blues but eighty years of pop and rock music came out of those twelve measures. It's like listening to someone sing a standard. We all know the words and music; now let's see what this performer does to make the material their own.
What material is West working with this time? He's got a haunted-house story going on. Or, more properly, a haunted-hotel story going on. While he was making his previous film, the excellent slow-burner suspense movie House of the Devil, his cast and crew stayed at the Yankee Pedlar inn. Even while he was working thirty-six hours a day on the movie, West realized that the hotel was an excellent shooting location and came up with another story in order to utilize it. I like that.
The titles show old photos of the hotel from the 1890s or thereabouts, and it turns out that the guy taking the daguerreotypes had his gigantic wooden box of a camera set on "creepy" the entire time he was taking pictures. Even though there's nothing inherently terrifying about a three-story building with lots of windows the photos all look ominous, with the Yankee Pedlar occupying the same territory through the decades. A paint job and the addition of traffic lights are the only real signs that time is passing outside the building, and the mid-1950s repainting color scheme is still there in 2011 when the film takes place.
The sense of history and times long past is evoked by the title card that fills the screen:
Chapter One - The Long Weekend
Claire, a young woman and one of two desk clerks at the hotel, walks in from the outdoors past a sharpie-and-cardboard sign on the front door announcing that the hotel is going out of business (which is an invention for the film, as it turns out--the Yankee Pedlar is still in operation today. In case you're planning a trip to Torrington, Connecticut and you're looking for a place to stay that was also a location shoot for a ghost story.) She talks for a while with Luke, the other clerk at the front desk. He's about ten years older than Claire. They chat for a little while and a few things are revealed to the audience: The owner of the hotel is in Barbados during the last weekend that it's open so they're the only employees left until the final checkout. Luke's camera is broken to the point that he had to send it back to the manufacturer but he brought a tape recorder and microphone rig for EVP recordings. And Luke has a laptop at the front desk; during slow patches at work he's been creating a web site (that looks about ten years out of fashion in the screen shots we see) about the history of hauntings and apparitions at the hotel.
In fact, while Luke was making sure that nobody else online had material on the hotel's haunted past, he found a paranomal-research site that had a video he tells Claire to check out. It's a creepy rocking chair in an abandoned attic room, and anyone who realized how much Luke's personal page looks like Geocities threw up in his laptop knows ahead of time that it's just going to be a scream site. Claire falls for it completely and Luke laughs like a goon, because it's fun to do that to people (True Confession: several years ago I sent so many library coworkers to a shock site with an animated ghost figure zooming towards the camera that I singlehandedly used up their bandwidth for the month). Claire takes a hit off her inhaler after the stress passes, and now I think Luke's a jerk for messing with her. It's also a really bad sign to need an obvious medication in a horror movie. That's one of those "let's see what he does with the material" things I was talking about.
Luke and Claire each pick a room; it turns out that for this last weekend they're both supposed to stay on-site the entire time. One of them will be stuck at the desk doing pretty much nothing while the other catches a nap in one of the hotel rooms. Both of the clerks pick a room on the second floor; the third floor has been emptied of all its portable furniture and there's sheets over everything too big to be easily moved. It seems a little overcomplicated to have two people occupying the place for a weekend, especially since there's only one room with anyone staying in it--there's a woman who's had a fight with her husband and is residing on the second floor for the weekend. Those two leave their room at the same time that Claire unlocks her door and watches a little television courtesy of her employer.
A little while later Claire is going back downstairs to the desk when Luke hands a room key to a middle-aged woman checking in. She's in town for a convention and Claire recognizes her as an actress who was on one of her favorite sitcoms. When it turns out that there aren't any towels in her room (Luke's complete inability to restock the linens is a running gag in the movie), Claire offers to take a set of them upstairs so she can fangirl for a little while. The conversation with the actress, Leanne Rease-Jones, goes extremely badly for Claire as all she knows Rease-Jones from is acting work from a decade ago and all the older woman wants to do is relax and have a drink before bed. After the social-interaction fiasco, Claire decides she needs a coffee and a change of scenery and goes to have a lengthy one-sided conversation with the barista (a pre-Girls Lena Dunham, chalking up her federally mandated early-career horror movie appearance). It turns out that the coffee house server doesn't know if her boyfriend really loves her or not and wants input from Claire, who barely knows the barista and never met her boyfriend. There's a great reaction shot in this scene; long before anything creepy happens West makes sure we get to know the two desk clerks and that we like them. Because when bad things start happening, and they will, the scares and tension are much more effective if the audience is on the protagonists' side.
Both Sara Paxton and Pat Healy provide detailed sketchwork to make their characters real and relatable (I'm a big fan of their running "ring the front desk bell before the other clerk can stop them" game that's obviously been going on for months and even though Luke is kind of a snot to people and not the best desk clerk in the world, he's a friendly and open presence. Two or three times he gives the detailed background of the hotel's guests and when Claire wants to know how he knows all that stuff, he just says "They told me," because that's what happened. Both of the clerks display personalities, not just character traits. Given that horror fans are used to caricatures and grotesques rather than rounded individuals, it's a very welcome change of pace and it helps the movie--which is pretty languid--move along pleasantly if not necessarily quickly. It's enjoyable to spend time with either of the leads, and even more fun when they're both together.
Late at night, Claire tries to have a meaningful conversation with Luke about where her life is going--she's in her mid twenties, dropped out of college, has a dead end job that's ending in a two days and doesn't have anything else lined up. Luke, it's implied, is in pretty much exactly the same situation except his eight or ten years older than Claire and unfortunately he's too tired to be able to talk about anything serious. He abandons the desk and goes to get some sleep, but is a nice enough guy to leave his laptop down at the front desk so Claire can goof around online if she's bored. She decides to look at the Haunted Hotel page that Luke was working on earlier and can't remember the URL, so to the history she goes. It's nothing but pornography and the haunted hotel site, of course (and Claire saves this knowledge to needle Luke later, of course, but as a throwaway joke because she really does like the guy underneath it all).
On the site there's video, shot at the Yankee Pedlar, of a door closing by itself and historical background on a woman's ghost that has been seen at the hotel periodically. Luke refers to the spirit as "the Widow of the Yankee Pedlar" and it's while's she's checking out the paranormal history of the hotel that Claire hears a scraping noise. There's a great Sam Raimi-style swooping camera move towards her at the desk that contrasts with the slow, languid filmmaking pace on display so far. Luke surprises her while she's looking out the window after an unsuccessful attempt to get the recording rig to work and they swap places at the desk.
Chapter Two - Madeline O'Malley
The next morning, Claire amuses herself by telling the hotel's ghost story to the little kid that's 1/3 of the guests that day (she has a flashlight turned on under her face even though it's daylight and the room she's in is fully lit--a nice touch). According to the story, Madeline O'Malley was abandoned at the altar on her wedding day and hanged herself in the hotel; in order to prevent a scandal, the hotel owners hid her body in the firewood bin in the cellar for three days. When that story got out, the town was outraged and the hotel shut down. It reopened in the sixties, but the ghost is still supposedly there. The child's mom is considerably less than happy with her freaked-out son and with Claire's ghost story. Oh, and Luke forgot to put towels in their room. He does not zip to his feet to fix his mistake; instead, Claire and Luke take a meal break in the empty restaurant. Luke says he can't really remember what Madeline O'Malley looked like the one time he saw her in the hotel (viewers of more than one ghost story know what it means when someone makes vague claims about having witnessed a paranormal event, yes we do...). Claire wants to make sure that on the last weekend at the hotel the pair discovers proof that ghosts exist.
But before any of that can happen, Claire's got to throw out a leaking garbage bag; there's a bit of slapstick involved with a badly placed dumpster that has a lid too heavy for Claire to lift fully; complicating matters is her own perfectly understandable desire not to get garbage juice all over herself. It turns out that Leanne Rease-Jones saw the whole ballet from her window. While Claire returns to the hotel, she hears the same weird noise and goes to investigate (which results in the first Spring-Loaded Pigeon I think I've ever seen in a movie popping out of a cellar door in the hotel's garage / storage shed). That's worth an inhaler toke and then Claire checks out the basement, finds nothing and leaves, but not before chaining and padlocking the cellar door shut. Back at the main desk, Luke is ready to conk out again and Claire leaves the tape recorder running in the laundry room. She doesn't hear anything there but after asking the ghost of Madeline O'Malley for a sign proving the existence of life after death.
Shortly after that totally reasonable request she starts hearing piano music through the headphones on the tape rig, but not when she takes the phones off and listens for it herself. There's a great suspenseful scene of her walking through empty rooms in the night listening to the EVP recording, and then two piano keys slam down by themselves while she's watching. Well, that's proof enough for her as well as the trigger for a fully justifies freakout. She runs upstairs to get Luke and also wakes Leanne up. After seeing Luke in his tighty whities she decides that she doesn't actually need to be comforted at that point, although she does take Ms. Rease-Jones up on the offer for a shot of vodka (from the remaining tiny little bottle in the actress' collection). Rease-Jones apologizes for the wrong-footed conversation earlier and explains that she's not in town for an actors' workshop like Claire assumed. She's now a paranormal investigator and psychic, and was in town for a convention of like-minded people. She wants to know what Claire saw and what she wants out of her attempts to contact the spirit world. Claire wants to know if ghosts are real; Rease-Jones corrects her terminology. They're spirits, not ghosts.
She dangles a crystal pendulum and goes into a trance. The pendant moves around on its own (but it's a weight on a chain; that's gonna happen at least a little bit no matter what). The former actress says that she's detected not one spirit in the hotel, but three. And all of them want to live but she can't--or won't--say who they are. She also says there's some kind of tragedy in the basement, related to a mistake that someone made. Claire thinks it's got to be Madeline but in the depths of the trance Rease-Jones intones "You can't save her. They tried to warn her; they tried to help her," which is the kind of thing you don't want to hear when you're 20 percent of the living people in a big empty building.
Early the next morning, Claire finds that there's no towels in her room after taking a shower. She tries to get some sleep and has either a nightmare or a vision of Madeline O'Malley in her room. She wakes up in a panic and runs downstairs to get Luke, inadvertently showing up at the front desk in her T-shirt and panties. The long-sufferering angry mom checks out that very minute (though her kid seems to be interested in taking a peek at Claire whether his mother wants him to or not).
Chapter Three - A Final Guest
Luke makes coffee for Claire and tries to keep her from getting too keyed up. He's a skeptic about ghostly visions even though he says he's actually seen one. The front desk bell rings--it's an old man asking to stay in room 353, and that he must have that particular one. He pays cash on the spot. Claire explains that there's nothing in the room but a bed and that she'll have to get sheets for it from the laundry room; she's willing to do that because even though it's the last day the hotel's going to be open she's a good enough person to try and do her job well. There's also some great blocking in this scene when the old man vanishes from the camera's view behind Claire's head--Ti West really knows what he's doing with his shot compositions and camerawork. The old man says he had his honeymoon decades ago in room 353, thanks Claire for her kindnesses and shuts the door in her face.
Downstairs, Luke and Claire are drinking Schlitz when Leanne returns from her seminar. Luke is more than a little bit of an asshole towards her but she chooses to inform him of the way her abilities work nonetheless. She says that everyone is a little bit psychic--that every time someone experiences deja vu they're having a psychic moment where the past and present overlap. She experiences things differently--her deja vu gives her memories of things that haven't happened yet. Which means that her vision of a tragedy in the basement cannot be a replay of what happened to Madeline O'Malley and worse still, she definitely saw something bad happening to a woman down in the cellar during her trance. So it's either her or Claire that's going to have something awful happen.
But enough doom and gloom--Luke starts retracing Claire's steps with the recording rig and a beer. He hears faint piano music and goes way over the top reacting to it. I think he could best be described as "plummy" at this point. Claire rises from the couch as a bedsheet ghost and falls over. Which leads to the pair of coworkers buzzed and talking about nothing much in particular until they start talking about important things. Luke says that he really likes Claire as a person, and genuinely treasures the fact that she treats him seriously as a person. He tells her that he'd do anything for her. Claire then tells him she's got an idea: "Let's go to the basement and find out what that ghost's fuckin' problem is,", which cannot be the idea Luke was hoping to hear. His face falls but he says okay.
Down in the basement, things are looking SUPER OMINOUS. The scene where Claire goes downstairs is filmed from the basement looking up, putting the viewer in a different point of view than there has been for the first 80 percent of the film; instead of looking at the hotel on the same level as the human characters and from their eye level or literally from their point of view we now see things from the perspective of the cellar ghost(s). Even (or especially) if viewers don't realize the shift in POV it would look jarring and off-putting. The perspective shifts back to the top of the stairs and to the human realm when Claire takes another puff from her inhaler. And when she turns on the light switch the bulb goes out, of course. Even Luke mentions what a good omen that is. He turns on the recorder and the two desk clerks descend into the dark and cluttered basement. They both bump into a light cord and react the way a normal person would when they're experiencing low level fantods and then get surprised by something unexpected.
The next sequence is notable for fantastic sound design in a movie that's already had spectacularly effective work with sound and music. There's a barely-there piano note that might also be dripping water (I went over the sequence multiple times and can't make up my mind). There's also a few twitches on the recording rig's needle and blowing wind underground that both Luke and Claire feel. Claire asks for a sign from Madeline; she's intrigued while Luke is scared working on terrified. The scene is only lit by their flashlights, which means the shadows are oozing and moving around even when they're trying to hold the lights steady. Claire says that she sees Madeline behind Luke and getting closer, and he bolts in a panic. Claire follows him upstairs where he admits that he never actually saw anything in the hotel other than rooms, guests and dirty dishes. He doesn't want anything to do with the investigation any more and drives off, although not before apologizing for leaving Claire alone in the hotel.
Claire wakes Leanne up (which takes a while). The actress is justifiably pissed off at Claire for not saying anything when Luke was disparaging her abilities. But she asks Claire to take her down to the basement where things just happened and takes out her pendulum, which falls to the ground and shatters after a series of loud banging noises and twitchy motions. Leanne says that Claire is in horrible danger and needs to leave the hotel, but Claire is dedicated enough that she goes to warn the old man that everyone has to leave. The door to room 353 opens when Claire knocks on it and she finds the old man's suicide note on the floor when she goes in to tell him what's going on. And Madeline is hanging from the ceiling in the room as well. Luke returns to the hotel (he's not that bad a guy after all, and found some courage when he realized that leaving Claire alone was as bad as it really is once his head cleared a little bit). Unfortunately nobody's leaving until Leanne's downstairs as well and when Luke goes to get the actress Claire hears a voice in the cellar and goes down to find out if it's someone who needs help.
This is a horrible mistake, of course. The nude and chalk-white figure of the old man is right behind Claire and when she sees him she startles and falls down a flight of wooden stairs. She gets up and flees through the cellar, trying to get out via the garage-floor door that she herself padlocked earlier. Madeline is in the dark with her as well, and approaches. And the screen smash cuts to black, as it must.
EMTs are bringing two bodies out of the hotel--Claire's got blood all over her face from injuries suffered in the fall and flight in the cellar and the old man's blood has soaked through the sheet covering him on the gurney. Police and EMTs ask Luke about what happened and he gives his statement. He goes inside to get his stuff and accuses Leanne of doing nothing to help Claire. Rease-Jones says that nobody could have done anything (and man, having psychic powers like hers would just suck, wouldn't they?). The ambulances and police cars leave, but the camera stays behind to look through the hotel and wind up in Claire's room again. I didn't catch it the first time I saw the ending, or even the second, but...Leanne saw three ghosts in her vision that just wanted to live. And the hotel, shut down, has a third permanent guest.
"Eerie" is such a hard mood to pull off in a movie. Missteps are fatal to tension. Thankfully, West manages the rising tension, humor, jump scares and eerie goings-on masterfully. Both of the leads are quietly charming and play off each other wonderfully. You get the feeling that they've been working together for a while and are comfortable in each others' company--which is important because the story works so much better when you don't want bad things to happen to the protagonists. Putting all the pieces together at more or less the same time the characters do puts the viewers in the story, making them wince and cringe at all the right moments. And half of what one gets out of haunted-house stories is finding out the truth behind what's going on, of course, whether it's the Scooby-Doo ending or where spirits are real. The viewer gets invested in what's going on and the characters have to suffer and endure.
And be alone, in an empty hotel, for decades. And all any of the ghosts want to do is live. Which they can't do at all any more. When Leanne said "they tried to help her", was she seeing Luke and her fail to prevent the tragedy, or were the two spirits actually trying to help or communicate with Claire? I don't know. Even with all the pieces put together on screen and the unambiguous depiction of departed spirits there's still room for interpretation.
This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for today’s entry are:
The Terrible Claw Reviews: Incident at Loch Ness
Yes, I Know: I Walked With a Zombie