Monday, April 10, 2023

“Could She Be a Puppet of the Witchcraft?” - The Last Inn (2021)

The term "modern classic" is thrown around left and right, but it only rarely applies to contemporary films. A few exceptions of actual modern classics include Andrew Getty's The Evil Within (2017), Glenn Danzig's Verotika (2019), and the film we are discussing today, David Kuan's The Last Inn (2021), a film with such intriguing visuals, stunning performances, and unique dialogue that only the term "modern classic" can describe it.

Some of your universe's critics might disagree. For example, reviewer rotini-52586 writes eloquently, "What a herundous movie. Rated this a 1...because there is no zero." (I believe the word Mr. or Ms. 52586 is searching for is "horrendous," and I also believe there is, in fact, a zero.) Reviewer heratyplant writes, "Every single scene & every word spoken is wrong or off, so to critique this properly would take all day, suffice it to say this should be on Red Letter Media's Best of the Worst, they'd love it!" And reviewer paul_haakonsen writes, "In fact, you are in for 1 hour and 37 minutes of toe-curling narrative with acting performances as wooden as ventriloquist dummies, and dialogue to match."

In point of fact, The Last Inn deserves to be seen as widely as possible. It is a unique and special film. Please read on for my appreciation...

At night, in a massive mansion, a little girl performs an occult ritual using a pencil the size of a yardstick.

“Spirit, spirit, you are called, come to me and hide no more,” the little girl repeats. Suddenly, a hand reaches out of her desk and grabs the little girl’s hand. A picture falls from the wall. The girl screams and the screen goes black.

The filmmakers cut to the de rigueur drone shot of a car traveling along a highway. The driver, a young woman named Laura, sees two figures—a woman and a child—in the middle of the highway. she swerves and strikes a tree, waking up the next morning with a dab of blood on her forehead. She climbs out of the car, then tries to flag down a young man driving a pickup truck drinking Dr. Pepper, but he only tosses the can at her. She begins walking down the highway.

Eventually,  Laura reaches a dirt road flanked by two sings. The first shows a skull and crossbones with the caption “11 Misty Road.” The second displays arrows pointing in two directions—Sass Town is 21 miles along the dirt road, while Lawst Inn is 1.5 miles to the right. She chooses the shortest path, toward Lawst Inn.

Presumably after 1.5 miles of walking along a dusty hillside, she comes across a new sign: “Welcome to the Lawst Inn.” She approaches the castle-like mansion from the prologue.

The inn appears deserted, but she is startled by a ringing phone (the old-fashioned phone rings only once, and she doesn’t touch it). Then an old man opens some sliding doors to tell her, “We don’t have any more open rooms.”

She points to a wall full of numbered keys and asks eloquently, “Don’t they mean there’s vacancy?”

An old woman arrives from a nearby staircase. “Please wait,” she says, then to the old man: “Dear, you’re freaking her out. There is one room left.” She introduces herself as Mrs. Lawst and tells Laura, quite insistently, to come with her. Laura follows her upstairs and along an expansive hallway. Mrs. Lawst explains, “We haven’t had much business since the town was abandoned. We’ve kept only a few guest rooms open.”

“It’s too quiet,” Laura says forebodingly, though the sound of their shoes clacking on the linoleum makes her statement somewhat unconvincing. When Mrs. Lawst reaches the door at the end of the hall, she knocks.

“Is there anyone in there?” Laura asks, confused as to why her hostess would knock on the door to an empty room.

“No. It’s just an old wives’ tale. Rooms vacant for too long may attract the unknown, and we must respect it.”

“Vampires?” Laura asks seriously.

“No. Ghosts.”

After letting Laura into the room, Mrs. Lawst also warns Laura about going outside when it gets foggy: “The mountain fog is the entrance to the spiritual world. And once inside, your soul will be lost forever.”

“Uh…is this another old wives’ tale?”

“Curiosity kills the cat. And we don’t have nine lives.”

“Oh.” Laura explores her room, seemingly forgetting the fact that her car is sitting next to a tree a few miles away.

At night, Laura takes a shower, but she is interrupted by the front door of her palatial hotel room being rattled (something she of course can hear over the sound of the shower). “Who is it?” she asks, and wears a towel as she walks into the bedroom, though she never investigates the rattling doorknob. Instead, she goes through her own wallet, pulling out a photo of her on a hillside near the Golden Gate Bridge.

“Damn it. It’s so weird,” she tells herself. “I don’t remember anything about this picture.”

Then a loud clatter from above makes her jump. She runs to the hallway and sees a pair of men’s shoes outside another door. Of course, the soundtrack grows ominous and frightening at the sight of the shoes.

After she runs to the lobby and uses the old-fashioned telephone to call 911, though the call is dropped when she tells the operator she is at the Lawst Inn.

She is interrupted by a young man named Steven. He tells her he will investigate the sounds she heard. They go to the hotel’s third floor and knock on a door, where a young woman with a pale blue face, Britney, answers the door. Steven says, “Britney, are you all right?”

“Yeah,” says the pale woman.

“Did you call for help?” asks Laura.

Britney closes the door when a little boy in her room says, “Mom.”

Confused, Laura walks down the hall with Steven. “Have we met before?” he asks her. When he asks why, she says, “I just couldn’t help but think I’ve met you before in the past. The other day, I had a car accident and all my memories are blurry.”

After a series of dreamlike images (water flowing, a Bible opening by itself and turning to an illustration, a television screen showing static), Laura rips open the curtains to look outside, where there is nothing but trees. The filmmakers cut to Mr. and Mrs. Lawst, who stand some distance away, watching the inn. “She’s gonna find out soon,” Mr. Lawst says, but his wife counters, “Not for a while.”

In a fascinating use of filmmaking technique, we watch as Laura dreams she is walking down the hallway outside her room where she sees a little girl who turns into an old woman that snarls, “Get out of my house!” Laura wakes up in her room in the bright sunlight and a caption is superimposed: “The Next Day.” Then the image of Laura waking fades to black.

We next see the hotel’s dining room, where Mrs. Last hosts a young Black couple who debate the qualities of a portrait on the wall. The woman asks, “Is this a portrait of you, Mrs. Lawst?”

“Yes,” replies the old woman cryptically (or perhaps not so cryptically).

Laura enters the dining room and the couple introduces themselves as Nicole and Peter. As Laura sits down, she asks with great specificty, “So, are you here on a trip?”

“I would call it…an adventure,” Nicole answers. She adds, “The town of Sass is haunted.” She explains, “Everyone was killed overnight upon a devil’s curse.”

“Oh my God,” says Laura.

“It’s just some rumor on the internet,” Peter says. “The truth is the whole town died of an epidemic.”

“Everyone?” Laura says. “No, because Mrs. Lawst seemed like she lived here before.”

“If that’s true, she must have heard of the evil witchcraft of Sass.”

Laura smiles as if Nicole has told a joke. Then Steven arrives and Mrs. Lawst serves fresh-squeezed orange juice. After Mrs. Lawst leaves, promising the leaky roof of the inn will be fixed, Nicole says, perfectly normally, “I found her a bit weird. She doesn’t look like a real person. Could she be a puppet of the witchcraft?”

Peter replies, also quite normally, “I’d eat a puppet if it tasted good.”

“I can see. You’re always hungry.”

“Not as much as you when you were in bed.”

(I must confess I am still not used to your universe’s ways, so I only understand about twenty percent of the aforementioned conversation.)

Not to be outdone by the conversation, Steven pipes up: “Have you noticed the cross on the door? They say that any silver cross can tame an evil spirit.”

“Ooh,” Nicole says (again, perfectly normally), “Evil spirit? If there was one, it’d be fun to keep it as a pet.”

Everyone at the table, of course, chuckles at Nicole’s suggestion.

Later, Laura and Steven walk around the forest, flirting with each other. Steven calls Laura charming, to which she replies, “Thanks. I thought you were about to say something awkward because you were so hesitant to spit it out.” She also fishes for whether or not Steven has a girlfriend, to which he replies that he does indeed have a girlfriend. Prompted by this, Laura tells him her complicated life story (her father abandoned her mother and her before Laura was born so he could marry his boss’s daughter, which left Laura’s mother so distraught she died soon after Laura’s birth). She also tells him she doesn’t remember before her car accident, and that since the accident she has been having a voice in her head telling her to go to an island (something the audience has not, of course, witnessed).

Back at the inn, Laura encounters Mrs. Lawst and suddenly remembers she should have her car repaired. Unfortunately for Laura, Mrs. Lawst tells her, not at all awkwardly, “The phone line has stopped working since yesterday. I don’t think we can get it fixed until the road is clear.”

In a romantic interlude, Nicole and Peter make out on a settee when Nicole hears a little girl giggling. They investigate but find nothing except an old dress with an alarming blood stain hanging in a wardrobe.

Meanwhile, Laura does her own investigation and finds the creepy doll from the opening scene in a hallway. She takes the doll back to her room and strokes it.

At night, Laura sees the blue-faced Britney and feels water dripping on her face, so she goes upstairs to Britney’s room, only to find the young woman lying in the bathtub, apparently dead. Laura races to find Mrs. Lawst, unaware that Britney opens her eyes in the bathtub. Laura runs downstairs to a basement, where she comes upon a frightening scene: a masked man stands over a little girl staked to a low table with Satanic inscriptions.

Gruesomely, the man uses a hammer to drive a metal spike into the girl’s forehead.

Of course, Laura responds as anyone would: She throws her flashlight at the man. The flashlight bounces off his mask. Laura runs, but the filmmakers show the man removing his mask, revealing that it is Steven.

Laura runs away, sees a hanged woman, and slides down a staircase. She wakes up in her room where Nicole, Peter, and Steven stand over her. Then Britney knocks at the door and says, “I think you just sleepwalked into my room.”

Later, only Laura and Steven remain in her room. “I swear I saw Britney dead in the bathtub,” Laura says. 

Helpfully, Steven says, “Britney was a heavy drug addict, I mean, serious drugs. Maybe it’s just one of her O.D. symptoms and she’ll come round afterwards.”

“But I couldn’t feel her pulse.”

“Maybe it was just one of the O.D. symptoms,” Steven repeats convincingly.

“But then, what about what I saw in the basement?”

“I bet you were terrified by what you saw in Britney’s room and it caused an illusion.”

“Okay. Yeah. That makes sense.”

Steven sees the doll and starts acting nervous. He explains, quite correctly, “Some dolls have souls and if they’re from an unknown source I don’t think we should mess with them.”

“I see.”

“You can never be too careful.”

The next day, the little ghost girl retrieves the doll, which Laura has abandoned in a hallway, and runs off with her little friend Charlie, Britney’s son. Elsewhere, Nicole and Peter investigate the painting of Mrs. Lawst in the dining room. Nicole wants to determine when the painting was painted, but she finds no clues.

After breakfast, Laura and Steven investigate the basement, which is dusty and untouched. They are startled to find both the doll (which Laura placed in the hallway yesterday) and Charlie hiding under a drop cloth.

Satisfied that the murder incident yesterday must have been a hallucination, Laura goes upstairs with Steven to his room so she can admire his printed photographs, which are haphazardly taped at various angles to the wall.

At night, in a creepy scene, Mrs. Lawst puts the doll, whom she calls Adele and thinks is her daughter, to sleep while she tells Steven, “We don’t have much time left.” In a clever bit of framing, the filmmakers show Mrs. Lawst in front of the head of the bed, whose frame is decorated with shapes hinting at the number 666.

The next day, Nicole, having nothing to do, follows the little girl into an empty room. Though she does not find the girl, she finds a large spirit board and brings it back to her room, where Peter asks about it. Nicole explains to Peter, “It is a very popular mysticism game in Asia which can be used to summon evil spirits. This is also sorcery.”

Peter, who is playing a game on his phone, concludes, “So what they say on the internet is true. The people in Sass believed in sorcery.”

Nicole tells him she wants to play the game (i.e., the spirit board) with Laura tonight. The film cuts to nighttime, when Laura, Nicole, and Peter set out the spirit board and get started, using the gigantic pencil the little girl in the opening used as a planchette.

They summon an invisible spirit. Laura asks, “Do you know what I’ve forgotten?” and the spirit responds by circling letters on the spirit board: DEA—

Suddenly a white hand grabs the gigantic pencil and tosses it away. They are interrupted by Steven, who says they shouldn’t call spirits in this house, and then the game breaks up without anyone sending the spirit away.

Later, Laura dreams of a phone call telling her Steven is not to be trusted, and then she sees a ghost drop a glass of water. Of course, Laura immediately walks to Steven’s room to wake him up, but instead she finds Mr. Lawst chopping some meat in the kitchen. “You shouldn’t be here, walking in here at night. Curiosity killed the cat.”

In their own room, Nicole and Peter are terrified because the doll is sitting on a bedside table. They cower away from the doll, breathing heavily, though the doll does not move.

At breakfast, Mrs. Lawst gives Laura the backstory of Britney, the woman who never comes to breakfast. Her husband beat her and forced her into prostitution, and Mrs. Lawst implies worse things before Mr. Lawst arrives with Laura’s breakfast, a rare steak sitting on a bed of lettuce—obviously the most traditional breakfast imaginable.

After pushing the breakfast away, Laura sits with Steven on a bench overlooking a lake. They observe Britney’s little boy Charlie playing with the little girl, who stands behind the blindfolded Charlie and grabs him until both giggle. Laura says, “Look how happy they are. I wish I could stay like a kid for forever.”

Steven replies, “Yeah, but kids don’t stay like that forever. They’ll eventually experience love, and then pain. And that’s when they know they’ve grown up…like us. And then there’s no turning back.”

Suddenly, the little girl vanishes, confusing both Charlie and Laura, though Steven says Charlie has been playing by himself the entire time.

At breakfast the next day, Laura speaks with Nicole and Peter, who are convinced they are being haunted by the doll. Shocked, Laura realizes she hasn’t seen the little girl’s parents, so she must be a spirit haunting the inn. They make plans to leave the inn as soon as the roads are cleared, but Steven interrupts them and they keep quiet.  Later, Laura watches the video from a camcorder she has set up watching her room. She sees a silhouette behind a curtain, and then the video crackles with snow. She tries showing the video to Steven but nothing is visible.

At night, Nicole and Peter snoop around the inn and see the doll sitting on a chair, doing nothing. Of course, they are terrified of the doll, nearly to the point of fainting.

Pulling a Telly Savalas, they go outside and burn the doll. Creepily, it starts moving and crying like a baby.

Inside, we view a horrific scene as Mr. Lawst chops up a human body, presumably for the next day’s breakfast steak.

Mrs. Lawst interrupts his chopping. “Darling, if you got to choose again, would you still want to experience this every seven days?”

He grins. “You bet.”

Upstairs, Nicole and Peter find the burned doll. Then a hand grabs Peter’s ankle and drags him under the bed. And Nicole faints when she sees a life-sized version of the doll in the room.

On the seventh morning, everyone gathers in Nicole and Peter’s room, where Nicole and Peter writhe on the bed, terrified but unable to communicate with Laura, Steven, and Mrs. Lawst. 

At night, Laura walks through a hallway using the video camera. She can see a ghost through the camera’s monitor that does not appear in the hallway. She runs to look for Steven but can’t find him. She runs outside, only to stumble upon the graves of Mr. and Mrs. Lawst, who died in 1941. She runs through the woods, quickly finding Nicole and Peter, who run with her. Then they encounter Nicole and Peter’s dead bodies in the woods.

“Peter! It’s us!” Nicole says. “We’re dead!”

“I remember that day we were swept away by the flood,” Peter adds helpfully. Then the two of them vanish in a cloud of yellow glitter.

Laura continues running through the forest, but all paths lead back to the inn. She runs upstairs and stumbles upon a gruesome scene: the drowned Charlie lying in a bathtub full of blood while Britney stabs her abusive husband.

The filmmakers cut (one might say awkwardly) to another scene explaining the backstory of the little girl and the doll. In this scene, the little girl’s parents are being lectured at by a priest: “The reason your daughter can see ghosts is because she played a game originating in ancient Asia which uses the pen and board as a medium to summon the spirit, and in this case a spirit hiding in the doll.” He adds, “I checked the church record and it said that in the 1930s there was an evil sorcerer that came to Sass Town, and was sacrificing little girls to the demons. And Adele was one of the victims.” The doll, Adele, must wander around until the end of time. Also, Adele died and her parents put her ashes inside the doll “as if she were still alive.” Adele’s father was Mr. Lawst, her mother was Mrs. Lawst, and they chopped the sorceror’s body into pieces (presumably to make breakfast steak). 

Helpfully, the priest also has a newspaper explaining the story of Britney and Charlie, summarized with the old-timely headline “A husband was killed at Lawst Inn his body was dismembered and cooked.”

Laura runs through the flashback and suddenly realizes, shockingly, that she too is dead, though the circumstances are slightly unclear. Based on the spectacular flashback montage scored with a soaring pop song that follows this revelation, Laura and Steven met in college and then planned to drive from San Francisco to his parents in Galveston, but they were both in a car accident. Steven died but Laura is in a coma.

The Lawsts appear before her and explain that seven days is the limit and today is the deadline. Now that she remembers what happened, she can return to her body. Steven couldn’t tell her what was going on, Mrs. Lawst explains, because “Your soul would have to be strong enough to recover your memory on your own, or else you would have ended up like Nicole and Peter. Only strong souls survive.”

“Yeah,” the ghost girl says. “Those two easily chickened out.”

Mrs. Lawst explains more of the rules: Steven would have to repeat every moment before his death every seven days, which was also a choice Mr. and Mrs. Lawst made to be with their daughter. 

Laura decides to look for Steven to tell him she loves him rather than return to her body in the real world. She runs through the forest. And then a boulder falls on top of her.

Laura wakes up in the hospital. As she sits in a wheelchair, two nurses talk about her situation. “Lucky girl. I heard that her boyfriend took the hit for her. Too bad he didn’t make it.”

“If someone loved me like that, I’d marry him in a heartbeat.”

“Oh no, I can’t go on with this. We witness all kinds of pain every day but this job doesn’t allow us to shed tears.”

Laura looks at a picture and remembers what really happened. She and Steven stopped their car and took photos by the side of the road. They met Nicole and Peter briefly on a motorcycle. Then they continued in the car, listening to an emergency radio broadcast saying there is flooding in the area (we see no rain but we hear thunder). Laura and Steven argue about meeting his parents. Then they drive through a landslide. A big boulder falls onto the car, but Steven manages to shield Laura somehow by hugging her.

In the end, Laura uses the gigantic pencil to contact a spirit that might or might not be Steven.

The End

I wish to summarize my appreciation of The Last Inn with one sentence: This film must be seen. It is truly from a different dimension than the one in which you live. A much, much better dimension. One can only hope director David Kuan and writers Bill Jones and Catherine Lewis continue to make films as special as this one.