Tag Archives: Lewis Pullman

No-tell Motel

Bad Times at the El Royale

by George Wolf

A priest and a vacuum salesman walk into a bar…

Well, one may not be a priest, the other might not be a salesman and the bar is really part of a nearly abandoned motel, but the point is all hell breaks loose in writer/director Drew Goddard’s stylish thriller, Bad Times at the El Royale.

Lake’s Tahoe’s El Royale sits straddling the Nevada/California border in the late 1960s. Before the East side lost its gambling license, the El Royale had been a hot spot and Rat Pack hangout, but lately bellboy/desk clerk and bartender Miles (Lewis Pullman) is pretty lonely.

Then the priest (Jeff Bridges), the salesman (Jon Hamm) and a singer (Cynthia Erivo) check in, followed by a hippie (Dakota Johnson) who’s got an F-you attitude and someone in her trunk (Cailee Spaeney). Their respective reasons for stopping at the El Royale are separate and shady, but as the characters reveal dark pasts and true intentions, the quiet hotel quickly becomes a battleground for survival.

Goddard’s follow-up to 2012’s ingenious The Cabin in the Woods is anchored with the same inventive zest, and built with time-jumping back stories and placards that bring Tarentino to mind. And while El Royale can’t completely deliver on its promise, it offers a gorgeous blast of color, sound and plot twists that are pretty fun to watch unravel.

The entire ensemble is splendid, each digging into their characters with a relish that only elevates the impact when our feelings about them change, and change again. Who’s a villain? Who’s a patsy? Who’s being framed and who’s just looking for redemption? Though Goddard’s pace gets bogged down at times, his visual style and careful placement of 60s pop hits make sure chasing those answers is always a retro hoot.

The film’s biggest disappointment stems from the arrival of the sinister Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a violent charmer who’s come to settle a score with someone in the El Royale’s guestbook. As past histories and current events collide, the film reveals a late-stage moralistic vein as hopes for a type of Cabin in the Woods-style showstopping finale slowly fade away.

Those final fifteen minutes are fine for any typical noir crime thriller, but not quite worthy of El Royale‘s previous deliciously indulgent two hours.

Tamara’s Not Home. Leave a Message.

The Strangers: Prey at Night

by Hope Madden

Sequels are hard. Especially when you don’t understand what made the original so unnerving and memorable.

A decade ago, Bryan Bertino released the almost unbearably slow burn of a home invasion film, The Strangers. The underappreciated gem quietly terrified attentive audiences, beginning with the line, “Is Tamara home?”

Director Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Down) and screenwriter Ben Ketai (The Forest) pick up the story of three masked, bloodthirsty youngsters still looking for Tamara.

A loving but bickering family spends the night at a lakeside campground and trailer park. A great deal of exposition ensures that you catch on, but the main gist is this: problem child Kinsey (Bailee Madison) is at odds with her beleaguered parents (Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson) and her golden-child brother (Lewis Pullman).

Yes, our three masked malcontents have also settled into that same lakeside trailer park, now mainly vacant in the post-season.

Where Bertino’s horror had the languid melancholy of the old country blues tunes scratching away on a turntable, Roberts prefers the power ballads of the early Eighties. In fact, instead of the cinema of the Seventies that inspired Bertino, Roberts prefers 80s fare, from the early MTV soundtrack to the Argento-esque title sequence to the campground setting.

This is a self-conscious slasher with jump scares, frequent bloodletting and a marauder who is profoundly difficult to kill.

Roberts borrows a lot. Not just from Bertino’s original, but also scads of other horror gems from across the eras (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Town that Dreaded Sundown, Friday the 13th, Bava’s Carnage and so many more).

And while cinematographer Ryan Samul cannot grip you with dread the way Peter Sova’s creeping camera and quiet wide shots did ten years back, he can frame a shot.

That shot 1) has usually been lifted from another source, and 2) often contains a nearly-ludicrous image. Still, there are more than a few beautifully macabre sequences in this movie. One poolside episode is particularly impressive.

Still, the main problem with The Strangers: Prey at Night is that it gets comfortable in clichés, where the stinging original subverted them. That doesn’t make it a bad movie. It’s not. It’s a nasty little piece of entertainment, unoriginal but competent.

And you cannot expect originality from a sequel, of course. You just hope it can be memorable. The Strangers: Prey at Night is not.