by Ian Morton
Way back in 2012, Drew Goddard hit the ground running with Cabin in the Woods. Turning horror on its head, the intriguing story and light-hearted twists cleverly reframed the cliche-ridden frustrations of the genre and made them the focal point of their own movie. Daring to be brave, the result was a solid film that played with convention and forced the audience to think differently about one of the most established pillars of cinema.
Having taken six years away from the directors chair – in which time he has gained an Oscar nomination and fronted a critically acclaimed TV series – the writer/director/producer/first grip/handyman/caterer/horse whisperer is back behind the camera for his latest effort, Bad Times at the El Royale. As seven individuals find themselves descending on the near forgotten El Royale hotel on the same fateful night, the rag tag group (ranging from vaccuum cleaner to haggered priest) are forced to reveal their their deepest, darkest secrets in order to survive the night.
Now why start this review with a synopsis of Cabin you cry? Well, Bad Times and Cabin have a lot in common. Both films borrow from the same play book with regards to characters, staging and plot points as well as treading similar ground with structure. Although it could be argued that it follows the same recipe for success, the reality is quite different as these commonalities are ultimately to blame for Bad Times’ downfall.
From a character perspective, it never really feels like you have anyone to route for. While in Cabin it plays with the good vs bad dynamic of a horror film, Bad Times tries to levy the same response from the audience, with little for you to actually grab on to. While Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo and Jon Hamm all vie for hero status in the opening act, the character development is let down by the second and third. Instead of weaving the individual stories, they are more slapped together through sheer coincidence than calculated plot.
What’s more frustrating however isn’t necessarily these issues on their own but rather the mystery of why they exist in the first place. Bad Times has an epic runtime. Clocking in way over the 2 hour mark, there is easily enough time to establish at least one substantial personality, it just unfortunately never delivers. If Tarantino can manage 10 characters in 99 minutes and still give us someone to route for, it’s frustrating that it can’t be done here with less to balance and nearly an hour more to play with.
For all its flaws though, it’s not all doom and gloom at the El Royale. While the issues can’t be ignored, it’s certainly not the fault of those portraying them. Bridges is great as the priest with a chequered past, while Hamm is wonderfully vile as the salesman with nowhere to go. It’s also a film that’s not afraid to play with expectation, playing Russian roulette with the protagonists with more fervor than an episode of Game of Thrones. The fact that none of these positive points are never capitalized on much past the opening act just shows you how bogged down things really get from about the half way point.
While on paper everything feels like it should have been a simple successor to Cabin, the final product misses the mark entirely as it tries to mimic and re-flesh a simple skeleton rather than dare to be something new. You could argue that it’s not all bad times at the El Royale but it’s certainly not an overnight stay at Disneyland.