The Innkeepers is one of those horror movies I really like because it’s about something. Most reviewers I saw seem to have either coincidentally – or not-so-coincidentally, because it was prompted by savvy marketing? – decided it has a Clerks-meets-Shining vibe. So is it about aimless twentysomethings in The Bad Economy™? Sort of, but not exactly: there’s more to it than just that. What it’s really about, more specifically, is demographic collapse.
Guy and Girl work as hotel clerks at the ‘Yankee Pedlar’ (=American Capitalism?). The hotel, although it looks to be in fine shape and have plenty of charm, is closing (due to ‘the economy’, we suppose) while the absentee owner vacations in Barbados (presumably because the screenwriter wanted to send him somewhere as absentee-sounding as possible). It also has a ghost-story legend behind it. Something about a bride abandoned there on her honeymoon, killing herself, and the then-owners hiding her body for three days to try to avoid the ‘bad for business’ publicity. So the two clerks, in between catering to the last few guests, are determined to do some ghost-hunting during the hotel’s final weekend. Of course, things go wrong, as things have a way of doing.
The girl is cute but unkempt, immature and seemingly sexless. The guy, older, is a standard-issue GenX beta porn-addicted loser who feigns apathy/pessimism as a shield and obviously has a crush on her. She would certainly be out of his league if they were the same age i.e. both in school together. But since she too has dropped out of school and become an aimless loser – ‘stuck’ in the hotel, like the ghost-bride of the legend – and even becomes interested in his loser nerd interests, he actually has a chance. By all rights, they really should be getting it on. And they aren’t.
The movie is mostly about that failure, and is in that sense a straightforward tragedy. Why do they fail? Because he is a weak beta who can’t man up and/or attract her despite his obvious interest, and because she is apathetic and antisocial and obsessed with trivia (in particular, the ‘ghost’ of the hotel) but meanwhile all too happy to string him along as a fawning sidekick. Her fate as the main character is portrayed by the movie as inevitable, something intrinsic to her; his plays itself out in a character arc in which, to his credit, he comes to realize his own weakness and that weakness’s role in the tragedy. This doomed coupling, doomed courtship, and (therefore) doomed species-perpetuation plays itself out metaphorically in the form of the ghost-story that is the movie’s nominal plot.
I notice that although it got some decent reviews, a sizable contingent of horror-movie fans really didn’t like this movie. Its IMDB score is rather low, perhaps due to a bimodal distribution (many gave it 6-10 but also a sizable minority gave it a 1). Understandable. The nominal ghost-story plot is conventional and ‘nothing happens’ for long stretches of it – but of course, that’s when everything important is happening. It’s certainly not a ‘horror movie’ in the vein of Saw/Hostel and anyone who likes/expects that sort of thing will clearly be disappointed. But it’s also not a hugely ‘scary’ ghost story with lots of ghost type stuff always going on, not as such; the treatment of the horror elements is at times even somewhat self-parodic, with a knowing wink. Any conventional horror movie relies on jump-scares, for example, and this movie is no exception – but in true ‘ironic’ GenX fashion it also inoculates itself by making fun of jump-scares.
But a movie like this isn’t about the scares as ends in themselves, it’s about the buildup and whether the scenario gets under your skin, and thus how well the scare payoffs are setup. And what’s interesting here is how, in a horror movie ostensibly framed around a generic theme of economic decline and what could have easily turned into hackneyed commentary on McJobs, the screenwriter ended up (whether intentionally or subconsciously) drifting toward the far more specific and interesting themes of broken couplings and demographic collapse. All the important details in the movie point in this direction of stunted fertility.
Let’s just look at the (so sparse as to feel almost post-apocalyptic) cast of characters. Aside from a little boy, a creepy old man near the end, and some no-name cleanup policemen in the final scene, there are no males in this movie except for the Beta Clerk. (Tellingly, the absentee hotel owner, presumably male, is never shown.) Men are either scared little children who want their mommy (this basically applies to the main Guy as well – asked to name pretty girls he first cites his mother and his sister), or so ancient and past-obsessed and as to be virtual ghosts.
Meanwhile, aside from the Protagonist Girl there are 3 (alive) female characters shown, perhaps representing 3 different stages of stunted/frustrated/diverted fertility: 1. an annoying twentysomething who works at the coffee shop next door and yaps complaints about her immature and unloving boyfriend (played by an actress who I decided was an ‘uglier version of Lena Dunham’, of Obama-is-our-national-boyfriend fame, but on later inspection turned out to actually just be Lena Dunham); 2. an irritating and demanding wife/mother staying in the hotel who has taken the kid and moved out on her husband for the weekend to ‘show him how much he needs her’; 3. a pathetic aging actress (played by an unrecognizable Kelly McGillis) who has become some sort of maybe-phony/maybe-not spiritual-medium as a way to ‘try to stay relevant’. As perceived by the actress/medium, ghosts – or spirits – can come from the past or future and all can exist simultaneously. At some point A Christmas Carol, which also has 3 important ghosts from different times, plays on someone’s TV. So perhaps these 3 women portray, well, Shrewness in its various stages of life – they are ghosts of Shrewness past, present, and future. (It’s a wonder to me the director/writer wasn’t more often accused of misogyny by some of the more perceptively-PC critics, but of course, he is equally-hard on the men – well, the ‘man’ – in his movie.)
What else. The old actress gained fame on some TV show called Like Mother, Like Son – which certainly applies to the aforementioned unmanly Beta. The Beta, of course, is into internet porn, which the Girl sees in his browser history, turning her off; she makes fun of him. The Girl sees the Beta in his underwear, which further turns her off; later he sees her in her underwear, of course with the opposite reaction. They get drunk and he pours his heart out to her in an impotently pedestalizing way about how much he ‘likes’ her and how she’s so ‘cool’ and how much he ‘appreciates’ that she ‘takes him seriously’ (i.e. his website on the supernatural and other nerdy hobbies) – which of course, only cements the fact that she won’t be taking him seriously, not as a romantic partner anyway. Then at the crucial moment, when he should be ready to make his move, she spontaneously suggests they go to the basement to do…more super-creepy ghost-hunting. No time for romance or love – especially not with you – when there are graves to be dug and historical trivia about other women to unearth (i.e. when there’s Feminist Theory to study?).
It turns out that he had just made-up all his supernatural experiences, presumably as a means of keeping her interested in him. It worked, all too well. As a result, she becomes lost in the dead world of ghosts, while he is left to gape in horror at the monsters he created. He tries to break through to her, but isn’t strong enough – his words – and she sees only ghosts. Her one possible means of escape is a door she had pre-emptively locked – tubes tied? – earlier in the film. He never gets to her. Life has been short-circuited and cut off, and as the actress/medium says, nothing could have changed that.
At the end of the film the hotel is empty. There are only ghosts. Demographic collapse is complete, and everyone is to blame. It takes two, after all.
P.S. For a great analysis (aside from mine, of course ) of this great movie, not exactly the same as but largely consonant with my take I think, and a great movie analysis site in general, see The Fine Art Diner.