Hap and Leonard gear up to face the KKK in Grovetown one last time, for better or worse.
SundanceTV’s Hap and Leonard
Season 1, Episode 6: “Eskimos”
Directed by Jim Mickle
Written by Jim Mickle
* For a recap & review of the previous episode, “War” – click here
* For a recap & review of the Season 2 premiere, “Mucho Mojo” – click here
The finale has arrived, and after Trudy (Christina Hendricks) abandoned Hap and Leonard (James Purefoy/Michael K. Williams), they were left with the vengeful Soldier (Jimmi Simpson) who still mourns his dead lover, Angel (Pollyanna McIntosh).
In the aftermath, Leonard’s place is covered in police tape, and Hap laments to the dog: “I miss him, too.”
We flash back to their precarious situation at the end of the previous episode. Outside, Jimmi is killing the dogs, taunting Hap and Leonard inside. The episode flashes to after it all again, as Hap starts to take down all the boards over the windows, trying to put everything back in its place. He’s sporting injuries from the shootout. Obviously, Hap is now safe from Soldier. But what exactly’s happened in the meantime?
At a literal and figurative crossroads, Trudy sits in the van. Over at the house Soldier keeps on taunting, especially about Trudy, mocking Hap for having trusted her too many times. The title of the episode, “Eskimos”, comes from a conversation about how Eskimos supposedly share women, so on. A nice anecdote. Then, from nowhere, Angel reappears. Not dead at all. In fact, she proceeds to kick the absolute shit out of Hap and Leonard. At least until the latter snaps her neck. Well now, Soldier’s really upset.
Hap: “Guns, huh? Who needs guns?” (Soldier shoots him in the arm)
Amazingly enough, Trudy does come back. She drives right through the side of Leonard’s house, crashing into Soldier, saving the two pals. At least for the moment.
In an impressive scene, Hap holds a gun on Soldier but refuses to pull the trigger. He is thoroughly a non-violent man, only when pushed to the brink. And still, Trudy pulls the trigger herself. So there’s a juxtaposition between the two lovers, as Hap is tough but doesn’t always take the hard road out, whereas Trudy usually takes the hard road everywhere.
In the bloody moments following the showdown, Trudy reveals to Hap she drowned the bird in the sink. It reminded her of their relationship, her failures. She says “I love you“, only both Hap and Leonard are passed out in the backseat. Ah, their love is always complicated by something new. Meanwhile, Trudy passes out behind the wheel and they casually roll into a ditch coming to a full stop.
In hospital, Hap wakes to a vision of Trudy, who bids goodbye. She walks down the hall with the old Hap, the long haired hippy Hap, the one with too much optimism, before having to go to jail and figure out the harshest bits of lie. A sign that the old Hap is definitely dead. And Trudy, too.
Cut back to that rainy night when little Hap and his father stopped in the rain to help the black man and his boy. Here, we see the unifying moment between young Hap and young Leonard. That night their fathers were both killed, after a car crashed into them on the wet road.
Back to their present day, Leonard wakes up to Hap sitting by him at the hospital. They’d been out several days. The two of them ruminate on their relationship, Leonard talks of the war. However, things feel fractured, and it’s possible this has forever altered their relationship. Also, Hap ends up being questioned by FBI and local law enforcement. They want to know about the job Howard and Trudy enlisted him for, as well as Leonard, and all about the car in the river, so forth. Turns out Angel and Soldier were on the radar awhile. But as for Hap Collins, he’s in the clear currently.
Hap sets out to find the hidden goods himself. Mostly, he finds old sentimentality, and a little bit of dog shit. Leading him to a ton of money jammed into the dog food. Stacks of bills inside; lots chewed, some no worse for the wear.
What I love about this series is the emotional aspect. Joe R. Lansdale writes great crime fiction, but writes even better characters within that framework. He gets into Southern Gothic at times, even a bit of a take on the hardboiled detective genre. Above all else, he is a crafty writer whose characters, particularly those of Hap and Leonard, leap off the page. Here, they are adapted incredibly well, and especially Hap is a touching, complex character. Purefoy gives a wonderful performance, nuanced, and brings out the best in Hap. So watching him cobble together all the cash, for Leonard, for the Children’s Trust Fund, it is a real class act type sequence. Because we really recognize the goodness in Hap here, despite him getting wrapped up in ridiculous schemes such as the one Howard and Trudy had going.
More than that, we see another scene of young Hap, who witnesses the police covering up the drunk driving deaths, blaming it on young Leonard’s father being a “coon” and all. So not only is there a bond between the two boys, there’s further evidence as to why Hap became the man he is now. A beautiful and sad scene all at once.
Three months down the road. Hap’s back to working in the rose field, drinking Silver Spurs by the handful at night, smoking his pipe. Then up turns Leonard, healthy, if not a little banged up. He’s got to attend the funeral of his uncle. Regardless of the rift between them, Leonard cares for the man, seemingly always did. And good ole Hap accompanies his friend to the burial. Whatever had come between them before, the wildness of the things in which they got involved, it’s now lightening, but that’s always been clear – these two are friends for life, and even if something gets in their way briefly it would have to be a life altering event for them to completely split apart.
Hap remarks how life is not like Leave It to Beaver, there isn’t always closure and things don’t always cauterize at the end of an episode, to provide relief, so it all can start fresh next time. Ironically, this is the case. For the moment, anyways. Because after Hap turns out the light stating “No more drama for a while,” below Uncle Chester’s house, buried under the floorboards, is the skeleton of a small child. What sort of misadventure will this bring in Season 2? This opens the setup for Lansdale’s novel Mucho Mojo from the Hap and Leonard series, a dark bit of subject matter, too.
Let’s root hard that SundanceTV does the right thing and gives this a renewal. Lansdale deserves it, as do Hap and Leonard because there’s so much more to explore with them – their relationship, their world and its landscape – and many stories to be told! A great, fun, and at times wild season.
SundanceTV’s Hap and Leonard
Season 1, Episode 5: “War”
Directed by Jim Mickle
Teleplay by Nick Damici
* For a review of the previous episode, “Trudy” – click here
* For a review of the Season 1 finale, “Eskimos” – click here
The penultimate Season 1 episode of SundanceTV’s Hap and Leonard starts out after the betrayal in the previous chapter, on the part of Angel (Pollyanna McIntosh) and Soldier (Jimmi Simpson) with the greasy Paco (Neil Sandilands).
But we step back in time, to when Hap Collins (James Purefoy) was a little boy, and the racism in Marvel Creek is alive and thriving. A minstrel show is put off, as people crack up laughing and enjoy it, far too much. We see little Hap and his father driving, when they notice a black man on the road with car troubles. Then the worst looks like it’s about to happen.
Cut back to the 1980s again. Angel and Soldier, with Paco alongside, have Hap, Leonard (Michael K. Williams), Trudy (Christina Hendricks) in tow. So what kind of madness will we see this time around? Surely Hap and Leonard aren’t going down without a fight.
Naturally, Trudy is disgusted by Paco, having been an intricate part of their team before. He’s a man of his own, though. Meanwhile, Leonard tells Hap: “If you see a chance, don‘t you hesitate.” For the time being, they go along to get along. They start digging up the money from their little treasure hunt. And poor Leonard’s the one designated to do the shoveling. Typical.
Except, down in the dirt there’s no money. Just an empty box. Turns out Trudy moved the cash somewhere else. Soldier takes her aside for a little heart to heart, though, she’s one tough cookie.
Love the dialogue. Not only does it keep in the spirit of Joe Lansdale, it’s just solid television writing, and keeps the scenes moving along at a nice, spirited pace. There’s wit, there’s profundity at times, others it can even be silly as hell. Dig it all around.
Soldier: “The biggest balls in this room are swingin‘ from a cooch, I gotta love that.”
With only Trudy holding the whereabouts, things might get to looking ugly. Well, not until Soldier’s had himself a nice meal of french toast a la Angel. A set of handcuffs Leonard uses in bed end up chaining him and Hap down; nice little touch there, especially his mouthy response to Paco.
But the situation is starting to get scary. Soldier is a psychotic, as is his partner/lover in crime. The headstrong Trudy will not reveal where the money’s hidden, despite Hap trying to convince her otherwise. “Who are you, Joan of Arc?” sighs Soldier. This may lead her somewhere dark and disturbing. My favourite scene so far comes when Soldier throws on some VCMG, “Spock” to be exact, and starts dancing. Right before Angel reappears with a toolbox. Lots of interesting things to use. Nothing really works on Trudy, though. Even a semi-crucifixion. Until Howard suggests they put some pain on Hap, that’ll get her mouth jawing.
Soldier: “I figured you more of a Soul Man”
Leonard: “Country got soul”
Finally, Hap reveals he’s pretty sure where Trudy put the cash – he’d seen something on her shoes which gave her away. What’s most interesting in this scene is the bond, again, between Hap and Leonard. It’s stronger than the one between Hap and Trudy, even as lovers. Because Leonard stopped Howard from bashing Hap’s face in. Then when Leonard faced a bullet, Hap stopped it all. He could’ve really stopped things when Trudy got that nail in the hand. Yet he didn’t. He saved that card for Leonard.
Ole Howard bites the dust. I knew somebody had to. But the chaos goes on. Hap’s busy leading Soldier to the right spot. Can they slip themselves out of this mess?
At the dog pens, Hap goes in to try digging out the money. Then they throw a plan into action, as does Trudy, stabbing Paco through the eye after hauling her hand off the table and using the nail in self-defense. Everything goes wild. Hap and Leonard run off, though, the latter takes a bullet. Trudy manages to do Paco in. But Angel and Soldier are still lurking about, just as ready as ever to do more damage.
Hap and Leonard go back for Trudy, holing up in the house. Outside, Soldier removes an arrow from Angel’s neck, one Hap gave her. And so Soldier watches as she fades away, whispering sweet nothings to her; a tender relationship for two maniacs, all the same. Will this only serve to make Soldier more crazy?
Right now, Leonard’s bleeding out quick, and Hap decides running is their best option. Well, Hap plans on carrying Leonard, but still – high tailing it is their only shot.
The plan gets interrupted by Soldier. And then Trudy leaves, fast as she can. Alone. Another double cross in the books for this Southern femme fatale. How are Hap and Leonard about to squeeze out of this one?
The final Season 1 episode, “Eskimos”, comes out next week. Stay with me, folks. Loving this Lansdale adaptation to the fullest!
SundanceTV’s Hap and Leonard
Season 1, Episode 2: “The Bottoms”
Directed by Jim Mickle
Teleplay by Nick Damici & Mickle
* For a review of the Season 1 premiere “Savage Season” – click here
* For a review of the next episode, “The Dive” – click here
After the fantastic premiere, Hap and Leonard continues with the second episode, “The Bottoms” – named after one of the Joe R. Lansdale novels.
A couple little black kids head out into the woods where someone was supposedly hung. One of the boys has a gun with him, but they end up getting creeped out and running off after finding a tree with a rope over it. Even worse, they stumble across the dead cop from the premiere’s finale – the one murdered by Angel (Pollyanna McIntosh) and Soldier (Jimmi Simpson).
Poor Hap Collins (James Purefoy) wakes up, still next to the Marvel Creek sign. He’s clearly hungover, and dying to take a leak. Hilarious, brief scene where he starts pissing on a bit of roadkill, but moves over politely: “Sorry, buddy,” he tells the dead animal.
Back over at the shack where Howard (Bill Sage) and Trudy (Christina Hendricks), and the others, lay their heads. Except everyone else is already up, including Chub (Jeff Pope) and Paco (Neil Sandilands). So instead of getting themselves out of there quickly, Hap and Leonard (Michael K. Williams) are saddled with Chub and Paco at the request of Howard.
Then up shows Prescott Jones (Jay Potter) trying to convert a few lost souls over to the Lord. He “sells the Lord‘s word“, apparently. But Paco comes out and drives the man off in as unfriendly a fashion as possible. I can’t help but wonder where and how Prescott will end up back in the mix. Can’t only be a one-off scene, seems too convenient.
With Paco and Chub along for the ride, off head Hap and Leonard. The four don’t get along perfectly, that’s for sure. I’m interested in Paco, what his backstory might be, especially considering the intro to Soldier at the end of the premiere episode. Paco and Leonard certainly come up against one another, while Hap smirks and goes along to get along. For now.
Later on, we get more on Hap’s character, as well as Paco. Those who know the stories already know Hap went to jail as a younger man for refusing to go to Vietnam, so there’s a whole other aspect to Hap (especially in his relationship to Leonard) we start seeing. Also, Paco was part of a group called The Mechanics; he was “a bombmaker who blew himself up“, so says Hap. And then a great scene where Chub gets stuck in a muddy pit, before the boys haul him out – Chub ends up losing his pants to the muck.
Cut to a diner where Trudy works. She serves some customers who would rather flirt. One of them knocks a drink over purposefully. At the next table, Soldier and Angel sit eating; he quickly picks up the drink for Trudy. They have an awkward encounter, too. Almost ominous. “She likes it bloody,” Soldier explains re: Angel’s meat preferences. Closer and closer come the villains to Hap and Leonard’s front door.
Back at the weird hippy ranch, Howard serves up tofu for everybody. Evidently he’s a vegetarian: “Didn‘t see that comin‘,” says Leonard with all possible sarcasm. Then there’s Howard, who we get more of – a hippy with big ideas, but no what to execute them himself. He sort of represents the worst of idealism. He has lots of plans in his head, lots of dreams. But he gets other people to do the dirty work, the hard labour. So with all his talk of being for the “have nots“, he uses Hap and Leonard like any other member of the upper class would the proletariat. They’re both expendable working hands to Howard. And Hap knows that, in his heart. He just wants money, to get out of the hole he’s in right now. Trudy says that Leonard sees the world “through dirty glasses“, but Hap replies: “Maybe the world is dirty.”
Trudy: “Maybe I should leave, so you two can put your dicks on the table, next to them toothpicks.”
Now we see more of Uncle Chester (Henry G. Sanders) in his little house. He’s writing, listening to a vinyl record and eating a bowl of oats. But he quickly collapses from some sort of pain. All alone, on the floor.
Cut back to Hap and Leonard sleeping at Howard’s place. They chat a little before falling asleep. Turns out Leonard at least likes the man’s cooking, specifically those yummy string beans. One benefit of vegetarianism.
The next morning, Hap and Leonard let the air out of the hippy van then take off on their way to start tracking down the bridge on Sabine River. Smart cookies, those two. They go hacking and slashing with machetes through the thick brush, finding nothing other than swamp ahead. Out of nowhere, Hap stops and looks happily into the forest, noticing an old sign on a tree he remembers. They step a little further and the bridge appears. One problem: “Where‘s the god damn river?” Leonard asks. It’s dried up, disappeared. The pair head to a bar, so they can lick their wounds. Leonard figures it’s probably a bullshit story out of prison, while Hap sulks. Their friendship is more and more evident all the time, just in the dialogue between these two. They know each other inside and out.
Added to that, in the background of the bar scene you can see Prescott Jones. What’s he up to? Sly dog.
Leonard has to head back into town after hearing about Chester. Trudy gives her condolences. Although, Leonard’s more concerned about Hap: “You just a ball he keeps chasin‘ into the street,” he tells Trudy. She seems to believe Leonard needs Hap more than vice versa. She doesn’t realize they both need one another.
At the hospital, Leonard visits his uncle. It’s touching to see him love his family so much, even while Chester shits all over him for being gay. Moreover, we get a quick moment between Leonard and a male nurse, which almost speaks of romance; yet it’s hard to tell. There’s a flashback then to a young Leonard, watching a dead body get wheeled by under a sheet, while a younger Chester holds him close. His uncle, no matter how surly, obviously meant something to him.
Love the scene right after where Leonard boxes a bunch of tires hung like a bag, and you can see the frustration, the anger in him bleeding out. And the male nurse shows up out of the blue, bearing food. So they do have a relationship! They did, anyways. Apparently they’ve broken up, according to the records he returns to Leonard. Meanwhile, Hap and Trudy take a drive, their relationship coming up in conversation. Love how there’s equal attention paid to these relationships, even getting in a bit of lovemaking between Leonard and his former partner. Furthermore, Trudy explains to Hap about how the new river ended up out of the old one, and where the flooding may have landed the car with the money. Impressive stuff. “A little ambition goes a long way,” Trudy says to Hap: “You told me that once.” But husband Howard’s been left out – he sees the maps with moved pins, the absence of both Trudy and Hap from the shack, and wonders exactly what’s going on.
Will Hap and Trudy get to be together again? “I‘m just not interested in the downtrodden anymore,” Hap tells her: “I‘m one of them.” She wants someone like Howard, but more like Hap and Howard; she wants the ideals of Howard, with the strength, the execution, the power of Hap. Yet clearly, after being a bit of a hippy himself, Hap has discovered what living in the lower class is like. Probably what bonded him so closely to Leonard so many years, forming their concrete friendship.
Out in a boat together, looking for the location of the car in a different spot, a lake near Sabine Island, Trudy and Hap do locate a license plate for the car. They also nearly get swallowed up by gators, or crocodiles; not sure on the biology. Then, after getting onto the shore, the two former lovers come together. Again. It’s hard to deny, their chemistry. Obviously neither of them wants to let the other go, but so much comes between them. Not when sex is on the table, though. And sex on the beach (sort of)? I mean, they’re stuck on each other.
More excitement to come surely once the next episode “The Dive” airs. Stay tuned with me, as we navigate this excellent adaptation of Lansdale further.
SundanceTV’s Hap and Leonard
Season 1, Episode 1: “Savage Season”
Directed by Jim Mickle
Teleplay by Nick Damici & Mickle
* For a review of the following episode, “The Bottoms” – click here
The premiere episode of Hap and Leonard begins with a great bit of action and some good ole CCR (“Up Around the Bend”). In 1968, we watch a car chase heading through Marvel Creek, Texas. Cops are hot on the trail of a couple men who’ve clearly pulled off a big heist. In the backseat, one of them bleeds out, money alongside for the ride. Only the driver does a Dukes of Hazard jump and puts the vehicle into a river. The gutshot man makes it out onto the shore, only to pass out and let fly a bunch of bills.
In Laborde, Texas – jump two decades to 1988 – Hap Collins (James Purefoy) and Leonard Pine (Michael K. Williams) work side by side on a rose farm. They end up fire at the end of the day because cheap Mexican labourers are a plenty. We get a look from Hap to Leonard, almost alerting us to their personalities immediately; Leonard proceeds to tear a bunch of roses up out of the ground. Hap is a little more calm while Leonard is the hotter head of the pair. But they’re incredibly close friends. They do a master-slave routine that might sound dumb put that way, however, it shows the close relationship between them evidently right off the start. Plus, Purefoy and Williams work so well together, their chemistry is what grabbed me quick in the opening to the episode.
Leonard: “You can take a man‘s job, but you can‘t take his cookies.”
The tension in their relationship starts once Trudy (Christina Hendricks) arrives. It’s obvious Leonard does not like her, he warns Hap – obviously Hap’s got a softer spot for Trudy than him. Leonard reminds Hap of an important thing to remember: “A stiff dick ain‘t got no conscience.” But I love Hap, too. They’re both clever and likeable, albeit in their own ways. Hap is honest and straight up, as is Leonard, but they’ve each got their distinct sense of dialogue. Further than that, we get a quick read on Trudy, as well. She apparently criticized Leonard for enlisting and going to Vietnam: “If no one would fight, there‘d be no wars,” she says revealing her innocently ignorant perspective on life.
And no sooner that they end up in bed together does she admit to Hap: “I need your help.” So does she really have all those feelings she claims? Or is Trudy more trouble than we can imagine? Probably a reason Leonard can’t stand her. So Leonard calls Hap up later, even quipping – “Nice knowin‘ ya, brother.”
Love the racial aspect of the series, in the South. All those lingering feelings of the Civil War and other bits of history still float around; to this day. In fact, that’s why Lansdale is suited to be adapted now because it speaks to some of the issues America specifically is still tackling. Even better, Leonard also brings more to the table as a character than simply being black in the South.
When Trudy offers up a supposed plan to make $200,000, all of a sudden Hap seems intrigued. Good for the pocket, bad for the love life/psyche.
Leonard: “This Leonard you talkin‘ to. Not some rose field nigger.”
Hap: “Except you are a rose field nigger. And so am I; a white one.”
Of course Hap brings the deal to Leonard. We get more of their relationship here, which is excellently adapted from Lansdale. Their bond is strong, as Hap throws a few obviously joking racial jokes around, and you can tell they’re friends for life because Leonard only throws him a smile. Then he throws a jab, the two of them boxing together. Such a good scene. Then we have Trudy in the mix, which Leonard hates. She talks about her husband Howard (Bill Sage) in prison; he ended up in jail with the man from the beginning – Softboy McCall (Trace Cheramie) – who knew about the money at the bottom of the river. Well that guy met a rough death at the hands of a crazy fellow inmate, over a brownie in the cafeteria. Now, only Howard knows the location. And Trudy wants to cut Hap in because he supposedly knows the location of the bridge on Sabine River, having been no strange to that area when he was a kid.
A local cop comes down to see the boys. Leonard’s Uncle Chester (Henry G. Sanders) got into an altercation and threatened to jam a cane up the officer’s ass – “sideways” at that. But what we see here is the other angle to Leonard and his character. His uncle has no time for Leonard’s homosexuality, apparently: “Keep your faggot hands off me,” Chester barks at his nephew.
We further see Hap’s love for Leonard, as a friend. He quietly hauls Chester aside before they drop him off and explains: “Now I don‘t like dick anymore than you do, but he does. But that‘s his business. He don‘t need you ridin‘ him on it. So you do that in front of me again and I‘m gon‘ take that cane, shove it up your ass, break it clean off. Understood?” I like that Hap doesn’t mince words and act like he’s making an excuse; Leonard is who he is, and that’s totally fine with him. As it ought to be.
More than that, Leonard shows us how fucking tough he is by knocking a big drug dealer on his ass. And I mean he really works this guy over, and quick, too. So don’t bring foolish stereotypes to this series (as anyone who’s read Lansdale already knows) – Leonard Pine is his own man. A great strong gay/black character.
Another thing I love is Hap not being a fan of guns. Between him and Leonard, they defy any pigeonhole you can try to put them in. They are not stereotypes of Southerners, yet at the same time they are very Southern. Which is a commendable aspect of these characters, obviously coming out of the original series of novels. Lansdale’s characters come out well with Mickle writing.
Another angle to the ever interesting Leonard is that he’s a Vietnam vet. Being gay and black, people might expect him to lean towards the counterculture trend that came out of the ’60s and ’70s. No, no. Not Leonard. He’s got no time for it. We figure this out once meeting Trudy’s husband Howard, as well as his buddies Chub (Jeff Pope) and the disfigured silent-type of fellow Paco (Neil Sandilands). Howard is a hugger, embracing Hap right off the bat, and trying to give Leonard one – though, he only succeeds on the former. A hilarious little scene here, which further shows us how determined Hap and Leonard are; they’ve got no time for Howard’s hippy dippy bullshit. While Howard has noble intentions, or at least acts like he does, they don’t exactly impress either of the pair. Especially not Leonard. Also, there is the fact Hap obviously loves Trudy, who bedded him while still having a husband – seeing Howard hold her hand almost drives him nuts. They’ve obviously got an open relationship. Hap isn’t into that sort of thing; he’s a lover, a real one.
Howard: “And where‘s your piece of the American Pie, Leonard?”
Leonard: “Oh, I ate mine.”
The finale of the episode is solid. Hap heads off to do a bit of emotional drinking. A suspicious blue car is at the gas station where Hap buys beer. He ends up at the sign just outside Marvel Creek, Texas. A flashback sees a young Hap with his father Bud (Ron Roggé), driving along in the truck. Bud makes a remark about a black man out in the rain, using the word “nigger” – we can see the learned behaviour here, which Hap obviously rejects as an adult. But it presses the issue of how that sort of thing is passed down by family members, in particular. At the same time, though, Bud ends up stopping to go help. Is there more to this story? Or is this showing us there was a good person underneath Bud Collins, even with his use of that horrible N-word? Either way, it tells us about who Hap’s become over the years in some ways.
At the very end of “Savage Season”, we’re introduced to Soldier (Jimmi Simpson). He’s the one sitting in the suspicious blue car at the station. A police officer goes to talk with him about a taillight, discovering Soldier’s possibly high, as well as the fact there’s a noise inside his trunk. An excellent first scene to introduce this character, plus that of the woman who slits the cop’s throat, Angel (Pollyanna McIntosh). They’re in Marvel Creek looking for Paco. Bloody and violent entry for these two, clearly poised as a big threat.
Amazing opening episode to this series. Exceeded my expectations.
The next episode is titled “The Bottoms” after one of the novels from Lansdale. Stay tuned with me, friends and fellow fans.
The Innkeepers. 2011. Directed & Written by Ti West.
Starring Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis, Alison Bartlett, Jake Ryan, Brenda Cooney, George Riddle, John Speredakos, and Lena Dunham. Glass Eye Pix.
Rated R. 101 minutes.
Every time I’ve got a particular bias going into a review, one that I can recognize, I always like to take a moment to recognize that. Such is the case with myself and Ti West. I love his work, even when others tell me personally they don’t like a movie of his I can’t help but find myself thinking “Why the hell not?”. I just love his movies. Years ago I got the chance to see The Roost, which I thought was a clever genre film and a gnarly creature feature horror movie. After that I had him on my radar, then as soon as I’d seen that out he came with The House of the Devil, and that one floored me; an overall amazing aesthetic, harkening back to the best of the 1980s, this is a slow burn horror with that Satanic Panic edge. After that I secured a copy of Trigger Man and, while much different than his other films, I enjoyed it. Even later, after he did this movie, his segment in the first V/H/S was probably my favourite – “Second Honeymoon” – his “M is for Miscarriage” out of The ABCs of Death was a saucy piece of raw, reality driven horror. Perhaps my favourite of all his work, The Sacrament is an obvious re-telling of the Jonestown Massacre yet using found footage and the VICE News name he makes it into so much more, something visceral and savage.
So, have you got an understanding of how much I’m a fan of Ti West? Maybe that paints my view of The Innkeepers a little too subjectively. Who knows. Either way, I think this is a fun little ghost story in a spooky location. It’s got a good atmosphere, something to which West is no stranger at pulling together. As well as the fact Pat Healy and Sara Paxton give good performances which are effective and at the same time quirky, but not so quirky you want to roll the eyes out of the back of your head. This film has charm, darkness, and even a few good old fashioned horror jump scares.
In the last few days before the Yankee Pedlar Inn closes down forever, two employees – Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) – attempt to find evidence of the ghost of a woman named Madeline O’Malley (Brenda Cooney) who supposedly haunts the halls. They’re amateur ghost hunters; Luke runs a website about Pedlar’s apparent hauntings, Claire just dropped out of college.
As the last few guests arrive for a stay at the Pedlar, Claire in particular gets closer and closer to the spirit of Madeline, whose story is a sad one; how and why she ended up trapped at the hotel in the afterlife. But once Claire gets a little too close, things may change – and definitely for the worse.
One unique little scene/shot I love is when Claire (Paxton) is using the recording equipment. The first moment is so cool, as the camera tracks along as if on a soundwave, moving slowly around almost wandering. The music and everything make this a creepy little bit, even with nothing creepy happening. I think this is the first scene where Ti West begins to set up a definitive atmosphere and tone for the scarier bits of the film.
The music gives way to more of a silence, a dim hum, some static, while watching Claire listening in another room than the one previous. This also leads into Claire discovering a presence in the big dining room, a piano playing softly amongst the hum of the static in her headphones. Nice little scene following her as she finds the piano itself around the lobby and watches it play by itself. Or rather it bangs the keys by itself. Spooky and an effective jump scare.
Really dig the score for The Innkeepers. Sure enough, when I looked up the composer it was Jeff Grace. For those who may not know, Grace has worked on some incredible stuff. Most recently he’s composed scores for Jim Mickle’s Cold in July and We Are What We Are, Night Moves, Mickle’s Stake Land, Meek’s Cutoff. Then he’s done other probably lesser known films – though they ought to be more recognized – such as Bitter Feast, The House of the Devil, The Last Winter, Joshua, and another of Ti West’s again The Roost.
Part of any great horror, in my opinion, is a solid score to help with the atmosphere. Grace’s excellent music feels very haunted house worthy. This is, essentially, a haunted house horror movie. Instead of a house, we’re getting the Yankee Pedlar Inn, which is just as creepy in the end. Grace does a good job with ambient noise, strings, and some electronic sounds in aiding the direction of West to supply a nice feeling from start to finish. At times it grabs us, gripping hold and not letting go, other times it lulls us into a spooky mood or a false sense of security before a nice scare; proper horror score.
Aside from the lead characters played by Healy and Paxton, I couldn’t get enough of the fact West included Kelly McGillis in the cast. What a wonderful surprise. Most known for her work in the ’80s like Witness, Top Gun, and The Accused, in the past few years she’s been a part of the indie horror revival. Particularly, after being cast in Stake Land by Jim Mickle, McGillis put in a performance here, as well as in the remake of We Are What We Are again from Mickle. So I love that she’s been a part of these films. She adds a great air of authenticity, I’m not sure what it is, but there’s an elegant quality to her; no matter the character. One of those classy older women with a lot of grace, at the same time there’s something sassy and fun about her, too. Here her turn as an actress turned psychic is a good show, wonderful addition and she works great opposite Paxton.
Which leads me to Pat Healy and Sara Paxton. They’ve got real good chemistry in their scenes, reminding me of employee-employee relationships I’ve had at jobs in the past. What I love is that they aren’t two characters of the same age, like two young people. Having the character of Luke (Healy) as a bit of an older guy compared to Claire (Paxton) made for a more interesting relationship between the two, in opposition to so many horror movies featuring all young, teenage-ish characters with the same attitudes, same inflections in their voice, same problems and lives. Not saying it’s some revolutionary tactic, but I do think it was a smart writing move on the part of West, who could’ve easily strayed into complete typicalness. Rather, here he gives us two fun, weird characters who’ve got an equally fun, weird relationship.
Paxton is my favourite, though. Because so often horror movies have characters that do not feel real. Claire, on the other hand, feels real to me, she’s a new college dropout, she works at an old school hotel that’s shutting down after one last weekend. There’s a sort of angst built up inside Claire that I understand; a lot of people could understand her. Yet she isn’t some snotty young girl or anything, merely she gives me that sense of being a woman who is straddling the edge of being young – a woman, maybe not totally prepared to become one.
Most likely the greatest part of The Innkeepers is how Ti West shot it on film. I mean, I don’t have anything against digital, not in the slightest. That being said, there’s something to be said for movies still shot on film. There’s a depth to it, perhaps that’s the best way I can describe it – a fullness – that isn’t always present when shooting on digital. I don’t know, I could be talking out my ass. My love for the look of film has to do with a richness, a broader spectrum of what it can capture. This provides West the opportunity here to frame so many wonderful shots and catch every last bit of it in lush, dark detail. Makes a haunted house horror movie creepier. Honestly, I think that’s part of why so many found footage horrors ultimately fall flat is because on digital the exposure issues end up blocking out so much of a frame that, at times, this renders much of what’s in the frame not as creepy as it might have been had the movie been shot with film. With this movie, it helps West insisted on using film because there are a lot of wonderfully constructed shots here which pull their style from out of every corner of the frame.
I think some of the complaints about The Innkeepers seem to revolve around the fact there’s not a HUGE amount of ghost activity or full-on horror. However, I’d say to those detractors that it isn’t mean to be that sort of film. If you want that type of haunted house horror, stick with even something more like Insidious – West works more here at mood and tone than anything else, and I think that’s totally fine. There are most CERTAINLY a few classic horror movie scares, both of the jumpy variety and real tense, suspenseful moments. They don’t come in spades, it’s a slow burn film. Regardless, to me the all-out scary stuff here pays off because West does a good job slowly cultivating a spooky atmosphere.
With a slow and deliberate style – aided by great editing – a creepy backstory that isn’t served up for us like a prequel within the movie itself but rather alluded to appropriately, and good writing/directing, Ti West’s The Innkeepers is a pretty solid haunted house horror. 4.5 out of 5 stars on this one, all the way. Again, as I started out in this review, I could be biased towards West and his films because I’m such a hardcore fan of his. I don’t think so, though, because there’s just something special about his filmmaking to me. He has old school sensibilities while also bringing a modern, fresh edge to his subjects at the same time.
If you haven’t yet seen anything by West, I suggest starting with The Roost if you can find a DVD copy; worth it. Afterwards, move on to this, The House of the Devil, The Sacrament, and see if there’s anything about him you’ll agree with me on. I know others who feel he’s decent but nothing special. Me? I think he’s one of the new hopes for horror cinema and genre filmmaking, right alongside Adam Wingard (The Guest, You’re Next, A Horrible Way to Die).