A terrific horror movie from director Ti West, The Innkeepers is the story of two employees at Connecticut's Yankee Pedlar Inn who decide to indulge in a spot of ghost-hunting. With the building on the verge of closure, and few guests in attendance, both Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are caught in a funk. Determined to delve into the hotel's grisly past, they decide to seek out the spirit of Madeline O'Malley, a bride who was supposedly jilted on her honeymoon, and who hung herself in one of the upstairs rooms. In the manner of these stories, both Sara and Luke uncover more than a few unpleasant surprises, which seem to coincide with the arrival of a medium, played by Kelly McGillis.
The Innkeepers is a much more restrained film than the Hammer remake of The Woman in Black from earlier in 2012 – and it's all the better for it. For the most part, West keeps the jump scares and in-your-face effects to a minimum, building the characters throughout the first half before cranking up the ominous tension in the second. It's a commendably old-fashioned experience and continues the great run of ghostly chillers we've had recently. The film also continues West's relationship with composer Jeff Grace, who has composed all but one of West's feature films thus far (The Roost, Trigger Man and House of the Devil). Grace worked as an assistant to Howard Shore on both Lord of the Rings, Spider and Gangs of New York, and Shore's sorcerous, portentous approach is very much evident in Grace's horror work.
However, Grace also has a noteworthy voice of his own: his score for the 2010 vampire movie Stake Land featured a surprising amount of emotional material in amongst the intriguing orchestral textures, and his work on House of the Devil also displayed an intelligent restraint, building agonisingly just like the film before exploding in terror at the end.
The Innkeepers is one of Grace's most accessible scores to date, but although it's relatively conventional, the composer demonstrates real skill by peppering the music with clever ideas to further build a sense of unease. The soundtrack album opens with a real barnstormer simply named "The Innkeepers", one which immediately grabs the attention and informs the listener that this score will be a classically old-fashioned delight. The piece is split into two parts: the central ghost theme, essentially a moody string section (lurking alongside which is a motif from the flutes signifying possible supernatural activity), and a pounding secondary piece featuring celli, double bass and timpani, which indicate the encroaching supernatural horror. It owes a clear debt to James Newton Howard's theme from The Happening but it's wonderful anyway, a horror score with a proper theme to give a sense of structure.
For the most part, the score bubbles away in the background, establishing a dark sense of unease through Grace's well-bolstered orchestrations. The restrained "Claire's Room" inverts the main theme by making it sound calm and collected, indicating the latent supernatural activity that the characters are not yet aware of. "Right Behind You!" introduces a brilliantly effective piano trill, adapting the flute motif and reflecting the film's idea that the ghost is often heard at the piano in the hotel's lobby.
Another thing Grace does brilliantly is misdirection: towards the end of "Right Behind You!" the solemn wall of strings suddenly gives way to darker, discordant material, indicating a change in atmosphere. "The Garage" introduces the first action music with thunderous, slicing strings and glissandi, again underpinned by the ominous notes from the piano. "The Story of Madeline" re-introduces the main theme, extending it through dark-hued strings that really make the hairs on the back of the neck stand up. "The Pendulum" and "What Does She Want" continue with the same restrained air, subtly gauged electronic effects and choir adding an appropriately spiritual feel to the orchestra.
The relentless slow-build in the music replicates the experience of watching the movie: we're constantly on tenterhooks wondering when the axe will fall and the terror will really begin. The second half of "The Pendulum Breaks" brings in the jumpy strings from the second half of the Main Title, adding layers of brass and the wavering, ghostly flute motif. Yet, it never reaches all out terror, and neither does the following track, "Special Memories", one which teases the listener by circling around the piano motif and suggesting the paranormal activity lurking around the fringes of the story.
"I Gotta Get Outta Here!" places emphasis on the B section of the main theme before "Last Bit of Nostalgia" introduces the first notes of true horror as the escalating shrill strings give way to some truly frightening, dissonant material. The presence of the ghost theme in the second half of the track is most welcome, establishing a sense of identity amid the tension. Even so, it's comparatively collected next to the climactic track, "Claire Falls", which brings together all elements of the orchestra and choir, plus a monstrous groaning brass section, to bring things to a terrifying close with a final flourish of the secondary horror theme. Things then conclude on an ambiguous note with a penultimate statement of the haunting ghost theme in "Epilogue" before a final round up of the principal ideas in "End Titles".
It's very hard to describe a score such as The Innkeepers without making it sound monotonous or repetitive. Truthfully, it's not a score of individual highlights but of mood, the sort you get when you read a great ghost story or watch one on film. The exquisitely rich orchestral atmosphere generated by Jeff Grace is the equivalent of a cold breath down the back of the neck, an experience frequently enlivened by visceral jolts of terror. Grace's restraint and mastery of the orchestra is brilliant but even more impressive are the multitude of textures and ideas located within the music itself, from the ghost motif on flute/piano to the sparing choral injections. The Innkeepers is one of the finest horror scores (and indeed overall scores) of 2012, highly recommended for those patient enough to yield to its strengths.