This Is a Movie Review: ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ Fits As Many Crazy Characters And Genre Twists as Possible Into a Quirky Hotel

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CREDIT: Kimberley French/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally published on News Cult in October 2018.

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth, Nick Offerman

Director: Drew Goddard

Running Time: 140 Minutes

Rating: R for The Violence of Lawmen, Career Criminals, and Desperate People

Release Date: October 12, 2018

Drew Goddard has a thing for surveillance. His directorial debut, The Cabin in the Woods, was all about the pleasure and ritual of watching young people being ripped apart by monsters. That thematic concern was to be expected with Cabin, which deconstructed in one fell swoop all of horror cinema, a genre that more than any other grapples with voyeurism at its core. Bad Times at the El Royale, Goddard’s second film, is by contrast about a group of various strangers converging at one central location. This setup does not by definition invoke surveillance, but it is just as concerned about the watchers and the watched as Cabin is. Thus a series of question is raised: is Goddard watching all of us? Is he sounding the alarm about the nefarious forces that are watching us? Or does he take that nefariousness as a given, and is he then using cinema to process it?

The action becomes quickly pear-shaped at the titular hotel, which straddles the state line between California and Nevada, with their differing liquor and tax laws separated by the two halves of the establishment. It’s a novel premise that keeps you on your toes and alert for other oddities. The El Royale might be off the beaten path and have fallen on hard times, but it seems to serve as a beacon to folks with similarly dual natures. All who are getting ready to spend the night there – a vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), a priest (Jeff Bridges), a soul singer (Cynthia Erivo), a rude, mostly silent young woman (Dakota Johnson), and even the concierge (Lewis Pullman) – are much more than they initially appear to be. That is hardly surprising, given how over-the-top or opaque they are when we first meet them. Bad Times does not reinvent the wheel, but it never lets its hands off it.

That maximal level of control is essential to what Goddard is pulling off. Once again, he is in deconstructionist mode. This time he is taking on the subgenre of post-Tarantino, nonlinear crime flicks. Obviously this is much more specific than what Cabin was targeting, but there are still plenty of threads to pull at, and Goddard pulls at all of him. (In a way, this is not so much a deconstruction of Tarantino’s imitators as much as it is a reconstructed better version.) He sets out to examine how each character could have possibly gotten to this point, diving into as much backstory as possible. That formula makes for A WHOLE LOT of movie. What could have been an hour-and-a-half shootout is instead a nearly two-and-a-half-hour dissertation. It is worth consuming it all, but prepared to be exhausted immediately afterwards and to continue to digest it for days, or even weeks, later.

Bad Times at the El Royale is Recommended If You Like: The Hateful Eight, Agatha Christie Mysteries, The Cabin in the Woods, Classic Rock and R&B

Grade: 4 out of 5 Room Keys

This Is a Movie Review: Tamara’s Still Not Home, and ‘The Strangers: Prey at Night’ is Frustratingly Minimalist Horror

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CREDIT: Brian Douglas/Aviron Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in March 2018.

Starring: Christina Hendricks, Martin Henderson, Bailee Madison, Lewis Pullman

Director: Johannes Roberts

Running Time: 87 Minutes

Rating: R for Knives, Blood, Axes – The Usual

Release Date: March 9, 2018

A lot of franchises straddle the line between sequel and reboot with their follow-up entries. In the case of The Strangers: Prey at Night, that confusion is baked right into the very premise. The first Strangers featured a group of masked, essentially motiveless killers terrorizing a couple. Prey at Night features a group of masked, essentially motiveless killers terrorizing a family. Are these the same killers? The masks are the same, as are the methods, and therefore any continuity or lack thereof is beside the point. So let’s ignore what Prey at Night does or does not mean as a sequel and just deal with it as its own thing.

The victims this time around are a family of four taking a weekend trip at a trailer park owned by some relatives. I’ll mention the actors because they deserve credit. I was going to skip mentioning the character names because they hardly register as fully fleshed-out human beings, but then I decided I might as well name them for the sake of making it more convenient to explain what happens. So there’s mom Cindy (Christina Hendricks), dad Mike (Martin Henderson), and their teenage kids Kinsey (Bailee Madison) and Luke (Lewis Pullman). The whole family is on edge, mostly due to Kinsey’s recent behavior, which is never specified. She is wearing a Ramones T-shirt and a plaid jacket tied around her waist, which I guess is supposed to symbolize rebelliousness? Or it could mean nothing at all. Either way, it’s not worth getting hung up on.

But the thing is, we spend so much time with these people that I cannot help but get hung up on something about them. This film asks its audience to consider, “What if you were relentlessly attacked by a group of killers just because they had nothing better to do?” Thus it is understandable why the main characters lack any discernible identity. These people are just supposed to be Any American Family. In theory, that is an intriguing approach, but in practice it is frustrating to spend so much time with these people and know essentially nothing about them.

Before the screening, there was an intro video from director Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Down) who explained that he meant for Prey at Night to be his own spin on John Carpenter. Specifically, he’s referring to the small town portion of Carpenter’s oeuvre, particularly The Fog and of course Halloween. But that influence feels misplaced in a film marked heavily by its gory extremity. There are some striking, Carpenter-esque shots (like a mailbox surrounded by fog), but they do not really feel incorporated into the killers’ reign of terror. Elsewhere, there are some vicarious thrills when the family fights back. But overall, this is a situation that would be plenty scary if it actually happened to you but on screen in this case it doesn’t offer the catharsis necessary for a successful horror film.

The Strangers: Prey at Night is Recommended If You Like: Horror Movies with Characters Devoid of Any Personality

Grade: 2 out of 5 Cracked Cell Phones