One of the many things my long-suffering wife has long been suffering is my fascination with ghost stories and suspense movies that don’t quite work. I take a professional interest in figuring out what went wrong with a near-miss in the genres and can, I fear, go on and on about it, sometimes greeting the poor woman the moment the alarm goes off with something like, “The quality level of a ghost story is in inverse proportion to the number of its boo-scares.”
Last weekend, I watched The Inkeepers and, I’m not sure, but I think my wife may have moved out.
I so wanted to like this — even after I watched it and didn’t like it, I still wanted to like it. An old-fashioned ghost story set in an all-but-empty inn: exactly my idea of a good time. And there is more talent on display in this little picture than in half a dozen bigger and better ones. Ti West, who wrote and directed, is clearly bubbling over with natural ability. He has a delightful sense of character and sense of humor and a strong instinct for what is now called the “slow burn,” but was once called “storytelling.” Sara Paxton — who seems to only take parts in which she gets brutally raped, killed, eaten or all of the above — is not only incredibly adorable but a charming actress. And Pat Healy is terrific.
But the film just doesn’t work. I love a slow build-up — but it’s gotta be there for a reason. There’s not enough story here to justify the time taken to tell it. And those cheap boo-scares that turn out to be nothing — they’ve gotta go, each and every single one of them. And when the real scares do come, they’re only okay. Creepy enough to watch, but we’ve seen em before. And a real scare should be scary in conception so that it lasts after the movie is over. After this was over, I forgot it entirely.
For purposes of annoying my wife, I tried to think what it was that made ghost films I love — The Ring, The Sixth Sense, Lake Mungo, Paranormal Activity — so great. Thinking of The Ring and The Sixth Sense, I wanted to say it was a great story that powered the scares. But thinking of Mungo and Paranormal — which have very standard stories — I couldn’t support that. It’s not necessarily characters either, since Mungo doesn’t really have much in the way of characters. A good scary story can work without even these.
But the one thing that links all those excellent films is an intricate sense of the eerie way in which the past and the present intersect. Either by accident or design, the writers and directors of these movies seem to understand the truly haunted nature of the world, not as a psychological phenomenon, but as a real one. That’s why when those movies are over, you feel you’re not alone; you feel you’re being watched. Because you’re not; you are — all the movie did was remind you.
In my humble but annoyingly insistent opinion, Ti West would benefit immensely from giving himself a classical education in the form. He should take six months and stop watching the 80′s horror flicks he seems to love, and read through some old anthologies of M.R. James and E.F. Benson and the rest. He knows the camera angles and he delights in his people and his venues and he’s one step away from being a hugely successful ghost guy. But talent is not enough. He needs to teach himself what he’s talking about: why the world is haunted and why it’s actually scary. Then he’ll be golden.