Ti West knows how to get under our skin and make us danse macabre. Over the course of his young career, he's almost single-handedly revitalized the moribund American indie horror genre. 2009's The House of the Devil is a dead-on take on Eighties-era scares, and now, with The Innkeepers, West proves himself a consummate master of the slow-burning shudder. His aesthetic is low-key, both in the pacing of his films and in the narratives themselves, but inevitably, by the time the end credits roll, you suddenly realize you've gnawed your fingernails down to their bloody quicks.
Purportedly based on kinda-sorta true events (or, more likely, rumors, inklings, and general weirdness) experienced by West and his crew while staying at a small New England inn during The House of the Devil shoot, The Innkeepers is a model of creeping dread. Claire and Luke (Paxton and Healy) are a pair of twentysomethings manning the front desk at the soon-to-close Yankee Pedlar Inn, a job that's by turns stultifyingly dull and genuinely spooky. Luke spends his frequent downtime setting up audiovisual equipment hoping to record some of the alleged paranormal activity for which the inn is known. Claire, for her part, wanders around, helps Luke with his (abysmally designed) ghost-hunting website, and generally maintains a sense of complete postteen snark, at least until Top Gun's Kelly McGillis, as a spiritually attuned guest, enters the picture.
What makes The Innkeepers such an unnerving experience isn't the outright horror but rather the lack of it. West mines every single floorboard creek and shadowy corridor for maximum frisson; this film ventures far beyond creepy and into the rarely explored land of genuine, incremental fear. Lead actors Paxton and Healy are perfectly cast, and Paxton, in particular, comes across as enjoyably goofy: part tomboy, part ghost hunter, all cool.
West's predilection for the unnerving hearkens back to the sublimely atmospheric stories of H.P. Lovecraft. Indeed, The Innkeepers has a fairly distinct Lovecraftian feel to it: all New England rustlings, gloom, and an omnipresent sense that something, somewhere, is not quite right. That's a difficult tone to sustain throughout an entire movie, but West pulls it off in high style. When he says "Boo!," you jump. (And don't even think about going down into the basement.)