So the cast of Clerks walks into The Haunting and decides to play Ghostbusters. I like that idea. And if you're more than a casual horror fan you should like that idea, too. Another thing to like: this is the follow-up to The House of The Devil, the exceptionally fun blast of neo-'80s Satanic panic from director Ti West, who's already been unofficially crowned the great evil, blackened hope of the horror genre.
He deserves that hype, I think. There's not one moment of House or this film that feels like it came from a corrupt bunch of Hollywood jerks out to make quick, stupid money from rehashing Last House on the Left or from "rebooting" the Friday the 13th franchise. West's stories are his own, he's inventive, he knows how to effectively wring all the atmosphere he can out of his low budgets and he has an intuitive vision of everyday stuff that looks and feels inherently frightening. He likes big, rambling houses with corridors and creaky floors, seemingly bottomless basements and lights that go out unexpectedly when the babysitter is all alone.
This time around, the action is now instead of then (there are laptops) and it takes place in the allegedly haunted Yankee Pedlar Inn (a real location, also considered haunted). Sara Paxton and Pat Healy are two lazy, go-nowhere desk clerks that are as determined to find paranormal activity in their going-out-of-business place of employment as two people can be, provided that the determination bar is set low enough to include hours of sitting around, drinking beer and failing to bring the guests the towels they request. And there are only three guests, that's how crappy their work ethic is. Enter Kelly McGillis, playing a fractured version of herself: a formerly famous actress turned psychic "healer" with some dangly crystal pendants in tow. Is she for real? Is she crazy? A fraud? A drunk? All of the above? Does it matter?
What happens next is a weird exercise in slow-burn tension that only pays off by force of directorial will. The characters are part goofy, part inert, part defeated. Their life choices aren't working, they invent supernatural realities that aren't there, one of them may or may not have encountered a real corpse-bride ghost in the basement -- not that anybody's spending too much energy looking for her, they're too busy putting on sheets and trying to scare one another with Halloween party-level ghost antics. And the place is closing down in a day or two anyway so what's the point of trying? Life sucks and then you get laid off. So when it's time for the action to get actiony, West has to push his people into it. If he didn't they'd never get anything accomplished, much less meet the doom that is their scary movie destiny.
And that may be the point. Horror that is good-looking, creepy and conceptually all there, minus the part that makes it horror. Horror that shrugs off its biggest horror responsibility, to be frightening, in the face of a pointless existence. Horror that relies on unease, atmosphere, disappointment and the grind of daily unhappiness to make the audience feel something. Horror that knows there's probably something down those pitch-black cellar stairs -- and if it's going to kill you then whatever, let it kill you -- but is just too burned out to bother chasing it.