Today in Movie History: October 30

We’re pounding down the home stretch to Halloween, but the big opener today isn’t a horror movie. It’s The Lion in Winter, Anthony Harvey’s adaptation of the James Goldman play about Henry II’s (Peter O’Toole) vacillating choice for an heir. Katherine Hepburn won the third of her four Oscars as his scheming queen, and the sight of the two of them joyfully tearing into each other makes the film a treat all on its own. It opened today in 1968.

The other big opener today is Thor: The Dark World, a minor entry in the MCU by anyone’s standards, though buoyed (and saved in my opinion) by another fine turn by Tim Hiddleston as the titular thunder god’s treacherous brother Loki. The film opened today just four years ago in 2013.

Beyond that, we have a trio of small but notable genre films for Halloween. House of the Devil eschews the torture porn of the early 2000s in favor of a slow burn that actually plays much better. It put director Ti West on the horror map and opened today in 2009. John Carpenter’s Vampires fails to rank among his greats, but still carries threads of the iconoclastic energy that made the director a legend. It opened today in 1998. But the best of the lot is The Hidden, the story of a body-swapping alien on a wild crime spree in LA, hunted down by Kyle MacLachlan’s pre-Agent Cooper weirdo fed. It opened 30 years ago today in 1987.

Today in Movie History: February 3

The later career of John Carpenter was marked by a gradual fall from the form that made him a legend in genre filmmaking. He put that fall on hold for one glorious moment when his last truly great movie — In The Mouth of Madness — opened today in 1995. Sam Neill plays a cynical private investigator hired to find a missing horror author, only to end up in one of the author’s books brought to life. (Or was he always there?) The film had great fun breaking down the fourth wall, as well as playing with the idea that horror stories are somehow responsible for social unrest… and what things would look like if that were really the case.

Genre filmmaking also saw a few more modern notables opening today. The Innkeepers, Ti West’s wonderful slow-burn tale of a haunted hotel, opened today in 2011, while Chronicle, the fascinating debut of director Josh Trank (whose implosion during 2015’s Fantastic Four reboot is now the stuff of Hollywood legend), debuted today in 2012.

On a much different note, Walt Disney Pictures released The Three Caballeros today in 1945. It strings together a loose series of sketches aimed at exploring and celebrating Latin America, linked by Donald Duck palling around with a pair of animated bird friends. It’s minor Disney at best, but retains some charm and is interesting simply to see something off the beaten path from the House of Mouse.

 

Halloween Review: The Innkeepers

Review by Rob Vaux
Starring: Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Lena Dunham and Kelly McGillis
Directed by: Ti West
Running time: 101 Minutes
Year of release: 2011
(Note: This review originally appeared on Mania.com. With the demise of that site, I’m reposting it here for general edification and amusement.)

I had another look at director Ti West’s The House of the Devil after my first viewing of The Innkeepers. It confirmed his thoughtful approach and helped explain why his films are so distinctive. Both of them explore more old-fashioned notions of horror. Both emphasize atmosphere and location over buckets of gore. Both spend a lot of time with their central characters before the fireworks start: flirting with boredom in order to get inside the heroes’ skin rather than treating them like clay pigeons. And both mine extremely effective results on a very small budget, like a carnival haunted house absent the clichés. West thus creates a distinct auteurial stamp for his work, setting them apart from run-of-the-mill chillers in every way.

The Innkeepers lacks the overt 80s throwback nature that made The House of the Devil such a hoot. Instead, it positions itself for the post-Ghost Hunters era, and the search for proof of the otherworldly that drives such reality programming. We find ourselves at the venerable Yankee Pedlar Inn, which has seen its share of spooky happenings in the long years of its existence (most notably a ghostly bride who died under horrid circumstances). But now its glory days are long behind it and after one final weekend, it will shut its doors for good. The last two employees – tech nerd Luke (Pat Healy) and easygoing Claire (Sara Paxton) – have to keep themselves amused through a long night at the front desk. In an effort to occupy themselves, they gravitate towards the resident ghost… and in the process get more than they bargained for.

West remains keenly aware of that other haunted hotel story – the one penned by Stephen King – and does his utmost to avoid stepping on its toes. The basic set-up is similar – a few people in a building too large for them and a tragic past that comes oozing through the walls – but the youthful wastrels here are distinctly different from the disintegrating Torrance family. The ghosts arise for different purposes as well, and even the convenient psychic guest (a delightfully surly Kelly McGillis) approaches the haunting from a fresh direction.

The build-up takes its sweet time, as the two clerks monkey around with recording equipment in an effort to make definitive contact with the ghost. Both are too smart for their jobs, and both are young enough to assume that something better will come along… though neither possesses the wherewithal to look. Their restlessness informs the first two acts, as Claire goes from passively interested to borderline obsessed.  The film carries its share of surprises, but doles them out carefully: just enough to keep us actively engaged. Paxton helps a great deal, with a spunky charm that’s hard to dislike and a curiosity-killed-the-cat sensitivity that pulls us in along with her. She establishes a solid dynamic with McGillis’s prickly guest and Healy’s fellow desk clerk, whose cynical proclamations masks an awkward attraction to her. All of those details combine to create a strong sense of reality… matched by the fact that the film was entirely shot in a real-life Yankee Pedlar Inn. (It’s in Torrington, CT.)

The push towards the finale lacks the breathlessness we expect from modern horror films, and some may grow antsy waiting for the money shots to start. That’s part of the point. The film’s recurring scares keep us focused and the payoff handsomely rewards those willing to take the journey. It retains an eerie elegance in the last few minutes: not as arbitrary as the traditional horror twist, but duly earned by the slow development that precedes it. Its return to traditional genre tropes was quite welcome after the empty excess of torture porn and toothless non-scares of the Twilight saga. With films as good The Innkeepers under his belt, West has become one of those signature voices reminding us what this genre is supposed look like.