Less is more, they say, and this holds especially true when it comes to horror flicks. Of course, there will always be those directors who rely upon crimson spatter and miles of intestines, trafficking heavily in the shock value brought about by Grand Guignol gore. Then there are those filmmakers who appreciate the similar-sounding but very different value of shock; they're patient and disciplined to a maddening degree, and they understand that what you're not able to see — what you're forced to only imagine — is often much more terrifying than anything they might come up with. That minimalist approach also lends itself to resourceful, low-cost moviemaking; not for nothing is "Paranormal Activity" the most profitable film ever made.
Writer-director-editor Ti West is part of that new breed of horror auteur, unafraid to pay attention to such things as character development and cinematography in the middle of a scary movie. His last film, 2009's "The House of the Devil," was an homage to the babysitter-in-danger movies of the 1980's, and his latest blends the haunted-hotel conceit with an honest-to goodness workplace comedy. Shot on location, "The Innkeepers" takes place at Torrington, Connecticut's Yankee Pedlar Inn over its final weekend in business. The apathetic owner, we are reminded from time to time, is in Barbados, leaving the hotel in the care of its final two employees.
Aimless 20something Claire (Sara Paxton, excellently wide-eyed) and her jaded co-worker Luke (the deadpan Pat Healy) are alternating 12-hour shifts, and when they're not goofing around during their overlap, each takes a turn manning the audio equipment that they hope might record evidence of the Yankee Pedlar's alleged ghost, a suicide victim from a hundred years ago. The inn's last remaining guests include a creepy old guy who demands a room on the shuttered third floor, as well as TV-star-conveniently-turned-psychic Leanne Rease-Jones (it's Kelly McGillis from "Top Gun"!). Leanne is the one who gets to utter the classic horror-movie warning about not going into the basement, which is, naturally, where everyone's headed.
West takes his time in parceling out the terror; most of the early jolts occur because we're on edge and trying to steel ourselves for what's to come. Just accept that West is firmly in control, and when he's not ratcheting up the dread (with the able assistance of composer Jeff Grace's sustained, Hitchcocky strings), he's eavesdropping on a normal day at work, with random topics of conversation, inside jokes, and that weird intimacy that usually exists between those in the same trench. (That admittedly non-sequitur scene of Claire trying to get a heavy, leaking garbage bag in the Dumpster is hilarious...and all too familiar.) West also achieves suspense thanks to deft POV tracking shots that limit our field of vision.
That restraint reaches its apex during a trip to the basement, where only Claire can see the ghost and we're left watching the fear on Luke's face. But the double-edged sword for a horror filmmaker is you have to deliver a money shot eventually, and it will almost always be anticlimactic. ("The Blair Witch Project" remains a notable exception to this rule.) But forget the destination and enjoy the journey, with its technical elegance, comforting cliché (has anyone ever deployed an inhaler without it becoming a plot point?), and lived-in performances all around. Pat Healy, who you may remember from such arthouse favorites as "Great World of Sound" (and such brothers as former Dryden curator Jim Healy), will be on hand for Saturday evening's screening.
When I see documentaries like "Spellbound" or "Wordplay," I can't help but wonder how the filmmakers decide which proverbial horses to bet on. In the case of "First Position," perhaps director Bess Kargman went by personality; she follows six exceedingly likable young ballet dancers as they compete in the Youth America Grand Prix, which awards scholarships to prestigious schools or contracts with renowned companies. We meet, among others, 11-year-old Aran, who shows off both his foot stretcher and his BB gun, and we spend time with 14-year-old Michaela, an adoptee from Sierra Leone whose beauty-filled present stands in stark contrast to her horrifying beginnings. There's nothing particularly groundbreaking about the film, and it seems to gloss over downsides like racism and anorexia, but it's impossible not to get caught up in the passion of young artists chasing their dreams.