Retread and Breakfast (Anytime)
Is the Whopper a good hamburger? Depends on who you ask. Offer Gordon Ramsay one of Burger King's signature sandwiches, and you'll likely get an earful about cheap meat. For millions of Americans, however, Whoppers are a dietary staple, an efficiently manufactured, brilliantly marketed food-pyramid compound that provides the sensory illusion of nourishment. Whoppers practically sell themselves now, but business demands growth, not mere consistency--which is why you've seen ads for Whopper Juniors, Double Whoppers, Triple Whoppers, Bacon and Cheese Whoppers, and, of course, this year's scientifically-proven-to-turn-your-poop-green Halloween Whopper.
To paraphrase Pinhead, I like to think of myself as an "explorer in the further regions of experience". Naturally, I ate one of the new black-bun burgers last week. It was revelatory. Between the mixture of A.1. sauce, ketchup, and mayonnaise, and the crayon-colored aftermath, I felt the tiniest of doors open in the back of my brain. A sandwich I'd eaten mindlessly a hundred times before suddenly became interesting; not something I'd try again, but would definitely recommend to anyone seeking a weird kick to their humdrum week.
The Inhabitants is the Halloween Whopper of horror movies. It's everything you've already seen, but infused with just enough off-recipe ingredients to count as a new product. Co-writer/directors/brothers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen do for haunted-house films what they did for mental-asylum pictures as screenwriters on John Carpenter's The Ward. This film is well-acted, well-shot, well-scored, and may well scare the daylights out of anyone tiptoeing into the genre. But ninety minutes of ninety-five-percent clichéd material--no matter how well assembled--will likely present a challenge to horror aficionados. Fortunately, The Inhabitants' five percent counts for a lot.
Let's build this analysis like a burger. It'll be easier on both of us: I won't have to trudge through a straight synopsis, and you won't have to read it. Instead, I'll list the key ingredients, the bona fide farm-to-table influences that made the film possible. You can decide whether or not to bite.
Top Bun: The Innkeepers The film takes place at a foreboding New England inn with a deadly past. The newly minted managers are a fun but clueless duo who take forever to catch on.
Lettuce: The Grudge Creepy, near-catatonic Rose (Judith Chaffee) is the inn's previous owner. She skulks about during an early grounds-tour scene, staring suspiciously at both the prospective buyers and at horrific things neither they nor we can see.
Tomato: Sliver Loving husband Dan (Michael Reed) discovers that the previous owner had wired the entire building with a secret video surveillance system--complete with multi-monitor VHS command center tucked away in the attic (Or was it the basement? Hard to tell in this Hogwarts horror house). Cue montages of attractive young women undressing in front of hidden cameras.
Onion: Paranormal Activity The Inhabitants isn't a found-footage movie, but there is enough video playback to suggest the Rasmussens are skirting a trend. The tapes capture spooky apparitions in freeze-frame and show Dan's wife, Jessica (Elise Couture) acting strangely as she grapples with the ghost of a witch (India Pearl) who used to live on the property.
Cheese: Every horror movie where a woman in a bathtub gets pulled underwater. In fairness to the Rasmussens, their take on this iconic scene is poetic. I loved the black hair slithering down into milky murk.
Bottom Bun: The House of the Devil To say that the twist-lite ending is similar to Ti West's slow-burn classic is both a spoiler and an understatement. The moments leading up to the final shot provide a fun, creepy coda to Dan and Jessica's story, but the Big Reveal plays as if the filmmakers felt a fun, creepy coda wasn't enough.
The Secret Sauce: This salty, creamy, hard-to-pin topper is The Inhabitants' selling point. Amidst all the horror tropes, the Rasmussens manage to inject their film with a handful of great touches that keep it from being run-of-the-mill. Granted, I don't know if any of these were intentional flourishes, or just details I picked up through my particular prism of perception, but here are a few hush-hush herbs and spices I discerned:
A.1.: This Old House (is really unsettling). The Inhabitants feels as though it was filmed in a brick-and-mortar location where bad things happened, instead of on a sound stage. Sure, the Rasmussens draw way too much attention to the inn's haunted-ness, via the standard creaks and whispers and shadows buzzing by the camera. But the movie is most effective in its quieter moments, when characters simply dust off artifacts or do laundry in the large, dirty, exposed-brick basement. This is a drafty, atmospheric film that will compel you to grab a blanket, even during unseasonably warm weather.
Ketchup: Relationships are hard, especially for real people. Though Dan and Jessica are are a movie couple in a horror flick, they exhibit more dimension than protagonists from other such films, whose main function is to give the ghosts something to scare. There's a judiciously under-developed element of their history that informs the later scenes' undercurrent of resentment, and the actors do well in bouncing between the subtlety of day-to-day struggles and the heightened reality of otherworldly influences. Truth be told, I got the sense that the Rasmussens cut (or didn't think to include) a crucial bridging conversation towards the end; the tone of Dan and Jessica's dialogue devolves into outburst a tad too quickly.
Mayonnaise: This last one is totally on me (I think): in the middle of the film, a trio of troublemaking teens breaks into the inn. The two guys' names are Dylan and Eric, and I couldn't help but think this was a bizarre reference to the Columbine shooters. What they find in the house, and the condition it's in when they arrive, is a steep plunge down an Other Movies rabbit hole that includes Hellraiser and Friday the 13th.
I'm pretty sure I've scuttled my fast-food metaphor. Maybe that's for the best. The long and short of it: The Inhabitants is a decent horror movie by some standards, a not-so-great one by others. It's an evolution for the Rasmussen Brothers, whose voice will, I hope, only grow weirder and more unique. They know the genre well enough to replicate what sells. But they'll need to define a style all their own to evolve from mere franchise operators to a beloved brand.