Following his masterfully atmospheric '80s peekaboo throwback "The House of the Devil," indie horror guy Ti West plays creep show docent again with "The Innkeepers," about a slacker hotel employee named Claire (Sara Paxton) who misguidedly provokes engagement with her soon-to-be-shuttered workplace's haunted reputation.
It's as much an homage to the creaky old-world charms of the place where West and his crew stayed during the Connecticut shoot of "House" — a regally faded 19th century edifice called the Yankee Pedlar — than it is another agreeably fun flexing of the writer-director's considerable shivers-not-shocks technique. An empty hallway at a low angle, a faintly hollow noise and a shot held two beats longer than usual are West's tools of the trade — plus a cheeky sense of humor in the glib conversations between Claire and fellow worker Luke (Pat Healy).
It all lends an air of unsettling, "The Haunting"-style anticipation to nearly anything: a trip to the dumpster, inspecting a well-lighted foyer or a bedside chat with the mysterious new guest (Kelly McGillis). Then there's — gulp — the basement.
The spare cast are effective game pieces, with Paxton an especially winning heroine, but whether you're a nervous wreck by payoff time, however, depends on your taste for mood over mayhem. Still, there's a skillful appreciation here for the kind of subjective dislocation behind the best ghost stories, and in this era of bloody-disgusting, that kind of smart ambiguity is welcome indeed.
"The Innkeepers." MPAA rating: R for some bloody images and language. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. At the Downtown Independent, Los Angeles.