In 2012, writer-director Drew Goddard turned the horror genre on its head (and then kicked it squarely in the butt) with his brilliant directorial debut The Cabin in the Woods. Then in 2015 Goddard re-invented sci-fi with his adaptation of The Martian(and scored an Oscar nod in the process).

Now Goddard is at it again, as he takes an age-old set-up—a handful of strangers come together in one place, and no one is who they seem—and injects it with new life. And though Bad Times at the El Royale doesn’t quite live up to the standard set by his earlier films, Goddard still proves he has the ability to craft something that will keep you guessing right up until the very end. And probably for a little while after, too.

The year is 1969, and a motley crew is descending one by one on the worn-down El Royale, a Lake Tahoe motel that straddles the state lines of California and Nevada (with an actual line running the length of the lobby carpet).

Jon Hamm and Jeff Bridges lead the strong ensemble cast—Hamm is Seymour Sullivan, an itinerant vacuum salesman; and Bridges is Father Flynn, a travelling priest. Joining the fray is Cynthia Erivo as Darlene, an aspiring singer on her way to a show in Reno; Dakota Johnson as Emily Summerspring, a quiet hippie; and Lewis Pullman as Miles, the motel’s squirrely lone employee.

It doesn’t take long for Goddard to get things going and for the what-the-heck-is-going-on head-scratching to begin. After a brief prologue of a man entering an El Royale room a decade earlier and burying a bag in the floorboards, we flash forward to Seymour discovering a dozen wiretaps in his room, the now heavily-armed Emily tying up a young woman in her room, and Darlene belting out a barrage of R&B tunes in hers. Who are these people? And are any of them connected? Sure, eventually everything becomes clear, but Goddard takes his sweet time getting there, allowing the slow burn to escalate over the course of a wild, bloody, and truly WTF hour.

Complicating things is the fact that young Miles has a shadowy past of his own, and the El Royale itself has no shortage of secrets to hide. And it all culminates with a third act entrance by Chris Hemsworth that alone is worth the price of admission.

Goddard, working from his own script, has assembled a deliciously retro thrill ride. Along with being delightful to see Hamm back in Mad Men-era garb, Erivo’s off-the-charts voice (she won the 2016 Best Actress in a Musical Tony Award for The Color Purple) provides the film’s throwback soundtrack, including stellar acapella versions of “This Old Heart of Mine”, “Unchained Melody”, and others.

Despite taking a little longer than needed to wrap up (a solid 15 minutes could have been trimmed from the 141-minute runtime), Bad Times never falters. It’s a ride no one would ever want to take for themselves, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun to sit back and watch.


4/5 stars