Bad Times at the El Royale: substance and style aplenty

Drew Goddard began his career writing for cult classic show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then became part of J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot team penning scripts for Alias and Lost. In 2013 he helped set up the first season (as showrunner) of Netflix’s Daredevil (one of Marvel’s stronger TV shows) and before that wrote monster film Cloverfield (2008) and debuted as writer- director with the excellent Cabin in the Woods (2012); then followed this up writing the screenplays for World War Z (2013) and The Martian (2015).

Basically he has a filmography to die for – from a writer and up-and-coming director’s point of view.

And now, as writer-director, he brings us another original tale in Bad Times at the El Royale (great title); starring the relative unknown Cynthia Erivo (one of the best actors in new film Widows at the moment) along with seasoned actors Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Jeff Bridges and Dakota Johnson.

The story takes place at the El Royale hotel, a building that has the border of two states running through it and feels like a throwback to a bygone age. We open with a man stashing something under the floor in one of the rooms. He’s then shot. Fast forward a decade and the hotel has fallen on hard times (basically: no guests). Yet a random, entirely unrelated group of guests turn up at the same time, and it’s clear from the off they’re each hiding something and have their own agendas.

So far so Tarantino.

Travelling salesman Dwight (Hamm) does most of the talking in the opening scene (tapping into his Don Draper days), deploying charisma, charm – and a bit of smarm – to the max. Singer Darlene (Erivo) arrives and acts guarded; alleged holy man Father Flynn (Bridges) seems genial enough, but is clearly hiding something.

Finally, moody chick Emily (Dakota Johnson) completes the group. She says almost nothing, other than to write ‘fuck you!’ in the ledger when asked her name.

The hotel’s concierge Miles (Lewis Pullman) tries his best to provide the group with the full hotel experience but it’s clear none of them are remotely interested. You can almost sense the tension in the air and predict that everything is going to go sideways pretty quickly.

All it will take is a spark.

Once they head off to their rooms we follow Dwight and learn some interesting things about him. After he discovers certain unsavoury things in his room he explores the hotel further and finds a hidden corridor which allows visual and audio access to all of the guests’ rooms. And so the plot thickens.

Without giving too much away it’s worth saying that the aforementioned stuff stashed in one of the rooms really just acts as a MacGuffin to drive the plot along and allow the characters to clash in interesting ways.

It all starts to go a bit mad by the time Chris Hemsworth’s character turns up and, overall, the whole thing could lose twenty minutes off the running time. But it’s still a fun watch.

For me, it didn’t quite hit the heights – in terms of sheer enjoyment – of the Cabin in the Woods, but it’s still an entertaining watch.

 

If you go down to the woods today…

The Cabin in the WoodsHands up, who likes a bit of horror? Let’s be honest, who doesn’t? Even the meekest amongst us doesn’t mind a good scare from time to time, it gets the blood going.

Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but The Cabin in the Woods is probably more entertaining than scary, perhaps because what starts as a standard horror film – good looking teens heading to a secluded cabin for the weekend – soon transforms into something else entirely. The usual set up is in place, typecast teens (jock, sensitive guy, stoner, good girl and slut) head to some ‘off the grid’ cabin, however inter-cut with their journey are scenes of two guys (West Wing’s Bradley Whitford and the increasingly ubiquitous Richard Jenkins) going about their daily jobs in some vast laboratory complex, clearly discussing the fate of the teens in question.

cabin labBig brother is watching
This gets your brain ticking. How do the teens relate to the lab guys? Are they part of an experiment or reality show? What’s the deal? For me, I started to picture The Running Man, Truman Show, that sort of thing. Whilst de-constructing horror is not a new concept – think back to Wes Craven’s Scream for example – there’s always room for another take.

What Cabin offers is lively entertainment and zinging dialogue, with a few scares and well-paced action. This is down to the writing team of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, the former behind Buffy and Avengers and the latter behind Lost and Cloverfield. From that you can get a pretty good idea of what to expect.

An army of nightmares
In terms of cast, stand-out performances include good girl Dana (Kristen Connelly) – looking a little like a younger Scarlett Johansson – and stoner Marty (Fran Kranz), assuming the role of comic relief and the most perceptive of the group. Between the two of them they begin to make sense of their predicament and influence their fate.

Cabin-In-The-Woods-endingCurt the jock (Chris Hemsworth aka Thor) holds the screen well, having filmed Cabin a couple of years before his career took off but, due to studio issues, the film only saw release this year. Perhaps no bad thing, as his star power now carries weight.

As the story plays out it becomes clear that the teens are being manipulated for a much greater purpose – something hinted at throughout. This leads to an epic monster-filled finale, something that will delight horror nuts and casual fans of the genre alike. Ultimately, this is a great Friday night movie, not that scary, but hugely entertaining nonetheless.