I sometimes come out of the theatre angry, thinking, "Why couldn't they just take a bit more time to make us care about the characters before they murder them to death?" It seems so obvious that things will be scarier if you care about and empathize with the characters who are threatened. But, like all obvious things, it isn't quite that simple.
Building character takes time and subtlety, two things that cost just as much as special effects. If you are working with limited resources, which most horror movies are, then you're faced with the question of whether to focus more on character and story, or on scares. And paying audiences love scares.
And so when a movie like The Innkeepers comes along, with its almost bloody-minded focus on character, it feels fresh and surprising, because the director doesn't seem interested in scares at all until the last half hour. We are here to spend time with the two main characters, a couple of listless minimum wage employees working the final weekend at an old hotel. There are no archetypes here - no final girl, no jock or geeky loser. It is set now, in the modern world, where those "classic" horror movie character types don't make any sense. Both of our characters are geeky losers, and both of them are also the cool kids.
There's a scene early in the film, where Claire wonders why everyone is so hung up on what they are going to do with their life. Why does everyone seem to think planning out the future around their career is important? This isn't the fake-rebellious question of a dumb college kid, it's the question of somebody starting to realize that they don't have the same values that everyone told them they would have.
Claire and Luke aren't defined by sitting behind that front desk. Their personalities emerge when they are breaking the rules of their job, when their break comes, or when they sneak up and scare one another. These scenes take their time, letting us see the characters just hanging out and being themselves, showing us how they amuse themselves, how they deal with boredom.
The Innkeepers is the first horror movie in a long time where I felt like I was watching people I knew. These are characters that could actually live in the real world as I know it, could work just down the street at a boring call center job, could pass me at the bus stop wearing their headphones. They were cute and awkward and stupid and a bit self absorbed, but they were people.
So, the characterization is great, but where does the horror come in? This is where the movie surprised me again, and went from good to great. I expected that we would get to know the characters, and then horrific things would start happening. This was what happened with the director's previous film, House of the Devil. But The Innkeepers never stops exploring the characters. At night, they wander the dark halls alone, with homemade ghost hunting equipment. The Yankee Peddler is supposedly haunted, and this is the last weekend before it closes down. It's the last chance to find proof that the ghosts are real. It's a way for them to kill the long hours of the night, but it's also interesting how we see Claire come more alive and engaged. Jobs and careers aren't important questions, but this is. Horrific things don't just start happening to them - they go looking.
Luke and Claire want to be scared. This is something I really related to, that a lot of horror fans must relate to. I was the kind of kid who watched scary movies even though they terrified me, who played Bloody Mary (and then later, Candyman) in the dark bathroom mirror. There's something really satisfying about that desire to terrorize yourself, because it also feels like it will be worth it if those bloody fingers come through the mirror and wrap around your throat. The world will be so much more magical and interesting, and so you kind of hope that it does work. It's a much more interesting search for meaning than asking what your five year career plan is.
But this is all a really delicate balance. We have a satisfyingly slow boil of anticipation, as we grow to know the characters better. Even the charming funny scenes are in the shadow of what is coming. We know this is a horror movie, and we know bad things are going to happen. If those scares don't ever show up, then all this subtlety becomes a trick, loses its meaning. All this tension would become a broken promise. So it is a relief when, in the end, the movie goes completely insane. We get the scares that the whole movie has been promising, and leave the theatre satisfied.