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‘The Innkeepers’ cleverly subverts its genre clichs for the better

Films set in haunted houses with creaky floorboards and ghostly presences were in abundance in 2011, from major hits like “Insidious” to disappointments like “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.”

Much like “Insidious,” which for some journeyed a little bit too far out there in the realm of fantasy, “The House of the Devil” director Ti West’s latest offering, “The Innkeepers,” subverts the clichs of haunted house films.

While moving the setting from a house to a multi-story hotel initially sets it apart, West’s witty script boasts his penchant for deliberate pacing and sustained scares that ultimately transcend many of the brief jump scares elicited from similar films. Also, West’s film ultimately has more in common with the hauntings that took place amid the snowy surroundings of the Overlook Hotel in director Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” than with any of its contemporaries.

It’s the last weekend for business at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a hotel that the film’s opening credits suggest has seen better days, with its two employees Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) left to oversee the stay of the hotel’s last few guests before it closes for good. One guest is a recently divorced mother and her child, another is a former television star named Leanne (Kelly McGillis), and the other is a ghostly spirit that’s haunted the inn for years.

Initially, “The Innkeepers” is seemingly a “Goosebumps” for adults, joyously setting up the legend of Madeline O’Malley, the spirit who haunts the inn in a campfire story-like fashion. O’Malley’s presence, which bothers both the hotel’s employees and its patrons, is an obsession of Claire’s, who feels the need to see O’Malley’s spirit for herself.

It’s when the film begins to focus on the characters of Claire and Luke that it begins to feel less like a horrifying ghost story and is instead content to be a loose comedy revolving around the perils of working an around-the-clock job at the decrepit hotel.

Claire, a meek and directionless 20-something, strolls the halls of the Yankee Pedlar Inn looking for spirits as if to avoid dealing with any actual responsibilities in her life, while the older Luke plays into Claire’s supernatural obsession if only for the chance of possibly attracting her attention romantically.

Much like he did with the lead in “House of the Devil,” West grounds his characters in reality, making them relatable as well as avoiding the idea that a character in a horror film exists solely to die. And in an age where there’s a dearth of films that play to the experiences of recent college graduates or individuals trying to kick-start their adult life, West has found a personal niche and fused it with all things that go bump in the night.

Claire is clearly unable to care for herself – making even the simple task of ordering at a coffee shop a chore – so when Leanne takes up residence at the Yankee Pedlar Inn and offers her some motherly attention, she eats it up. The only problem is Leanne is a believer in the supernatural and panders to Claire’s obsessions nearly as much as Luke.

The performances are great all around, from Paxton’s portrayal of Claire to the snarky Healy as Luke, and even “Top Gun” star McGillis as the clairvoyant TV star Leanne. McGillis, who’s had steady work since her ’80s heyday and recent career resurgence in genre films like “Stake Land,” earns her screen time and will have many questioning why she’s been delegated to supporting roles in the past couple of decades.

Though one could forget that “The Innkeepers” is a horror film after the first act passes, upon the arrival of a mysterious hotel guest, the terror comes into full effect. Paired with Jeff Grace’s typically rousing score, West directs the movie in a way that’ll have you waiting with bated breath to be scared, until you are jolted with mysterious happenings at the Yankee Pedlar Inn.

“The Innkeepers” is a film with ideas, many of which deal with the manipulation, gullibility and naivet of Claire. Much like Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski’s classic 1965 horror-thriller “Repulsion,” many of Claire’s haunted happenings could simply be the product of the numerous insecurities and paranoia in our lives, whether they are the fear of dark places or a seemingly empty life.

While the trailers would like you to think “The Innkeepers” is about the ghosts that haunt the old hotel, like “The Shining,” it’s much more focused on the living, only now it’s the ones who quietly let their lives play out from behind the desk of the hotel’s lobby. Like “Clerks” meets “Repulsion,” “The Innkeepers” is of a rare breed – a haunted house thriller where you aren’t necessarily asking for its lead to be swallowed up in the end.