Blue Öyster Cult, as some might not recall, was a big band a long time ago, and is still ghosting the classic-rock airwaves with its 1976 hit, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” The group soldiers on, in some vague form, but its high-life days are long-gone. Now, we’re told, in the new film Roadie, the Cult can no longer afford the services of their long-time gear-humper Jimmy Testagros, and has just dumped him after 26 years of loyal schlepping.
As Jimmy, Ron Eldard (the low-rent dad in Super 8) gives a sweet, moving performance as a 40-ish guy suddenly un-tethered in time. With his vintage sideburns and old-school rock hair falling in his face, Jimmy is an irrelevant curio with no place in the modern world. Cut loose from the only life he knows, he returns to his childhood home in Forest Hills, Queens, where he tells his ancient mother (Lois Smith) that he’s actually the Cult’s manager and sometime songwriter, and that he has only dropped by for the day before shoving off on another international tour. After rather too much interaction with mom, we follow Jimmy out onto the streets of his old neighborhood and into a bar, where he meets his long-ago high-school classmate Randy (Bobby Cannavale). Now the movie starts taking shape.
Randy is an abrasive loudmouth, and Cannavale, an actor who energizes every film in which he appears, plays him with an appropriately caustic bray. Randy never actually liked Jimmy Testagros back in the day, and still derides him as “Jimmy Testicles.” He has taken over his father’s car dealership and is married to Nikki (Jill Hennessy, perfectly cast), a local beauty with whom Jimmy once had a thing. Nikki, who remains committed to ’70s-style tight jeans and outer-borough eye paint, has taken up songwriting herself, and performs with her acoustic guitar every Saturday night in the backroom of a bar. (“She gets 30, 40 people,” Randy proudly notes.) Randy is aware of his wife’s onetime relationship with Jimmy, and as she warmly welcomes her old boyfriend home, we see glints of jealous suspicion flashing in his eyes.
Roadie seems unfocused at first, and a little under-powered. But it snaps to life in a long, lacerating scene set in a cheap motel room, where Randy and Nikki have brought Jimmy to share a booze-and-cocaine approximation of a rock-star revel prior to her weekly performance. As the three of them get increasingly wasted, old records and memories are brought out, with Jimmy air-drumming along to Cult classics like “Dominance and Submission.” Here, Eldard vividly conveys a grown man’s unflagging joy in the liberating music of his youth.
The party collapses into bruising hostility; then the movie once again takes a little too long before Jimmy finally comes to terms with his reduced circumstances. Along the way, the director, Long Island laureate Michael Cuesta (L.I.E.), imparts a pungent sense of New York’s working-class suburbs, from the tightly-packed row houses to the evergreen celebration of such local rock legends as the Good Rats (and, in a brief soundtrack appearance, the Ramones—Forest Hills’ finest). Cuesta, who cowrote the script with his brother Gerald, doesn’t judge his characters, and he offers them no solutions. Jimmy is a man whose rock 'n' roll dream has never died—it’s like a spiraling guitar solo that goes on forever, even after it has faded to little more than an echo in his head.
Writer-director Ti West is a low-budget auteur celebrated within the horror-boy fraternity as the future of their beloved form. West is devoted to the genre’s pre-torture-porn past—to the slow buildup of tension rather than promiscuous slashes of gore. Unfortunately, in practice this means that for considerable stretches of his last film, The House of the Devil, and his latest, The Innkeepers, not a whole lot happens. Which is to say that, however admirable the director’s formal intentions, the movies themselves are kind of dull.
Like The House of the Devil, which was an exercise in the babysitter-in-peril subgenre, The Innkeepers explores another horror readymade, the haunted house. The story is set in an elaborate old Connecticut hotel—an East Coast version of The Shining’s Overlook—that’s going out of business; in fact, this is the last weekend it’ll be open. On hand in these waning days are two skeleton-staff employees, spunky young Claire (Sara Paxton) and older, mopey Luke (Pat Healy). Since only one of the hotel’s many rooms is occupied—by a sour runaway wife and her young son, whose presence in no way advances the plot—there’s not a lot to do. Luke spends his time behind the reception desk at a laptop working on his Website, which is dedicated to the paranormal. Claire is obsessed with stories she’s heard that the hotel is haunted—something about a gruesome event that took place there years before—and is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. (Since she’s presumably been working at this place for a while, you wonder why she has only now begun investigating.)
There are occasional strange scratchy sounds, a door that closes all by itself, and, inevitably, a dark creepy basement into which Claire and Luke eventually descend. A couple of new arrivals also appear: an old man (George Riddle) with a murky connection to the above-noted gruesome event, and a has-been actress named Leanne (Kelly McGillis), who’s pursuing a second career as a spirit whisperer and is in town to attend some sort of psychics’ convention, with spook-detecting crystal pendant in hand.
Amid much portentous wandering of the hotel’s long corridors (in tracking shots that recall The Shining with little point or payoff), we intermittently make the acquaintance of the resident specter—a figure of such impoverished manufacture that it might have drifted in from a nearby Halloween party. In addition, while the old man turns out to have a surprise up his sleeve, it’s not an especially surprising one.
This is a good-looking picture—cinematographer Eliot Rockett captures the hotel’s creamy interiors in all of their cluttered luxe—and Paxton lends it valuable charm and energy. But the rest of the characters make little sense. Despite operating an otherworldly Website, the schlubby Luke demonstrates minimal interest in the paranormal activity going on all around him. And the thinly-written Leanne’s crystal-dowsing is too silly (she might as well be faking her shivery predictions on a Ouija board) to be in any way eerie.
For a purported horror movie, then, The Innkeepers is woefully low on horror. Could its enthusiasts be only recently arrived on the horror scene? Am I missing something? Or is there just something missing?