Six years on from the belated release of The Cabin in the Woods, Drew Goddard returns with his second film as writer/director. A bloody 1960s-set crime yarn centred on the eponymous run-down Lake Tahoe hotel, Bad Times at the El Royale comes armed with quick-draw dialogue, violent stand-offs, Motown cuts, and casual allusions to real-life figures. Starring a juicy ensemble, it’s got a Pulp Fiction vibe to it, even if Goddard doesn’t have as distinctive a voice as Tarantino’s.
After a prologue where a crook stashes a bag of cash under the floorboards in one of the rooms, we fast-forward 10 years. The El Royale has seen better days, but that doesn’t stop a gaggle of guests arriving at the same time: priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), put-upon singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), garrulous salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), and the mysterious Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), who signs the register ‘Fuck You’.
Once they’ve checked in with concierge Miles (Lewis Pullman), squabbling over their choice of rooms, Goddard begins to explore exactly why they’re all here. With the first four chapters named after each room number the guests select, we soon learn that just about nobody is who they say they are. Moreover, the hotel itself creaks with secrets, not least because all the rooms are fixed with two-way mirrors and an observation corridor, allowing Miles to film any kinky goings on.
Goddard’s script is such a treasure trove of twists that it might be fairer to resist wading into spoiler territory. That said, the late arrival of Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods star Chris Hemsworth as bare-chested, flaxen-locked cult leader Billy Lee shoves a real stick of dynamite up the third act. Proclaiming “What does God mean to you?” Hemsworth is eminently watchable as a hair-trigger guru in the Charles Manson mould.
Likewise Hamm is enjoyable with his effusive Don Draper-lite character, but it’s the ladies who set the film on fire. Shedding her Fifty Shades of Grey good-girl image, Johnson has a blast as the ruthless Emily, although it’s Erivo (who also stars in Steve McQueen’s upcoming Widows) that really rocks the house. Bad Times at the El Royale may not be a musical, but her rendition of You Can’t Hurry Love and other standards are captivating.
If the film isn’t quite as inventive as the game-changing horror that was Cabin in the Woods (which boasted Joss Whedon as co-scripter), it’s infused with affection and craft. Even if the plot logic doesn’t always hold up, it’s rich on rain-drenched atmosphere as we’re left trying to figure out who’ll be the last woman or man standing.
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- Release date: October 5, 2018 (US)/October 12, 2018 (UK)
- Certificate: R (US)/15 (UK)
- Running time: 140 mins