Wiping away cobwebs from the moth-eaten genre of the haunted hotel story, writer/director Ti West nails the elusive combo of levity plus genuine scares in his restrained but punch-packing The Innkeepers.

The title and marketing materials suggest a conventionally creepy period piece but the setting is contemporary and so, to a point, is West’s approach. His tone-shifting screenplay is hooked on two characters as they spend their last days goofing around at work. They are employees of the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a homely hotel about to shut up shop after more than a century of business.

Guests are scarce but Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are convinced one of the Inn’s customers never left. Before the Yankee Pedlar’s doors close for good, they want proof that a piano playing ghost lingers in the building and set about trying to record evidence.

“We’ve gotta get something on tape. it’s like a moral imperative,” says Claire, though she may live (or not, as these things invariably go) to regret it.

There are insinuations of paranormal themes from the get-go but West deliberately doesn’t get the tone “right” for a heavy duty horror movie. Low-key conversations combined with pertinent themes with decorative dialogue (for example, talking about ghosts mixed with commentary on the quality of sandwiches and the importance of not skimping on bread) lend a Kevin Smith-ian tang to a ye oldie premise. Eventually, the genuine chills come, and they’re worth the wait.

Conveying a sense of trying too hard is a sin of many horror films; in West’s hands, aided by enjoyably chatty performances from Sara Paxton and Pat Healy, such a sin need not enter the confessionary.

The tone of The Innkeepers regularly shifts and reforms, thoroughly enjoyable in the context of a keep-em-guessin’ thriller difficult to peg down or second guess. Despite a superfluous supporting character who shifts the story into more conventional realms — and seems more a relic than the central heebie-jeebie (aka the ghost) — kudos to West for conjuring from the creepy cooking pan a solid and unprepossessing winner.

The Innkeepers Australian theatrical release (Victoria only, at the Nova cinema): May 21, 2012.