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A haunting, in time and space

"The Innkeepers" is streaming online through Amazon Instant and Vudu. It is also offered on some cable systems' On Demand channels and opens theatrically in a limited release February 3rd. The official website is here.

The trailer for "The Inkeepers" betrays a basic insecurity common in low-budget indie films nowadays: They want you to think they're as loud and hectic as their big-budget counterparts. They're afraid you won't show up otherwise. And so this horror film which builds its scares slowly, stealthily and through the peculiar quirks of its characters is sold as just another clangy, generic mainstream fright flick. Mercifully, the actual film shows only a little of this poisonous "ambition." It's mostly just a good old-fashioned ghost story, well told.

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This film's wealth of personality is apparent early on, as director Ti West takes his time recording the subtle oddball chemistry between Claire (Sarah Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), the only staff on duty at the Yankee Pedlar Inn. Luke is obsessed with documenting a legendary ghost at the Pedlar for his website. He is surprised to find that Claire, his secret geek-girl crush, is just as fascinated by the subject. For a healthy stretch of the film we just watch them goofing off and pranking each other when not rendering poor service to the inn's only two guests (one played by Kelly McGillis from "Top Gun," appearing about 15 years older than her actual age--the biggest jolt of the movie, for a viewer over 30).

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You probably already know that the ghost is somebody who met a violent end back when the hotel's eerily antiquated architecture was brand new. There is no ingenious new twist or complex backstory in West's screenplay, but, as with his bare-bones instant cult classic the "The House of the Devil," the script is there basically just to provide structure and momentum for his suspense set pieces. If such discount storytelling irks you, consider that those horror classics which endure, like "Psycho," "Alien" and "Halloween," take this spare, clean-lined approach. The tiresome (and gruesome) inventiveness of the "Saw" franchise and the glut of Cliffs Notes backstory in Rob Zombie's "Halloween" remakes ditch suspense for shock and grotesquerie. Boring.

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West luxuriates in screen time and space, exploring the inn in claustrophobic widescreen frames that make it easy to understand why Claire utters a line from Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby." She's in a Polanski kind of space. When she enters unsettlingly symmetrical, coldly lit hallways, "The Shining" comes to mind. There's even a direct visual quote of a shot in Kubrick's Stephen King adaptation (the first time the sight of a pretty young white girl made me think of Scatman Crothers). I'm sure I missed a lot more such loving references to horror films made in a time before CGI-enhanced torture porn.

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The tone is light, cultivating the kind of nervous laughter amidst frightening silences that John Landis perfected in "An American Werewolf in London." But what I wouldn't give to see how much more nervous the laughter would have been without Jeff Grace's incredibly obvious musical score. This is where the indie film insecurity comes into play: The cues tell us precisely when to laugh and jump, in the blandest possible way. Graham Reznick's imaginative sound design becomes less so in the mix with Grace's ready-for-the-multiplex bleating strings (which I had trouble telling apart from that of the recent, far less subtle spookhouse flick "Insidious"). Maybe it's all West's tribute to the wall-to-wall horror scores of old, but it forgets a lesson in restraint that Alfred Hitchock once imparted to young John Williams.

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The average viewer won't make such picayune complaints about the music; they'll just note that "The Innkeepers" is entertaining, never losing its grip on the viewer but often feeling like it just might. It's definitely worth any horror fan's time, but I hope West's eventual DVD/Blu-ray edition includes the option to leave out the orchestral cheerleading in favor of deeper, less predictable thrills.

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"The Innkeeper" was produced by Larry Fessenden and his independent company Glass Eye Pix. Fessenden's work as a director ("Habit," "Wendigo," "The Last Winter"), along with other films released by Glass Eye in recent years, represent a provocative challenge to mainstream horror (and crossover indie companies like Lionsgate). With budgets that are a sliver of what the major studios blow on bloated, mediocre tentpole movies, this new class of filmmakers weaned on the 16mm and digital DIY ethic reminds us that it all comes down to great storytelling. Don't believe the hype about "The Inkeeper." It might be advertised as a bid for entry into the big leagues, but it's so much better than that.

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Steven Boone is a writer-at-large at Capital New York, conrtibutor to Fandor's Keyframe blog and Indiewire's Press Play blog. He experiments with images and video at Hentai Lab.

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