Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

In just a few high-profile creative projects, Drew Goddard has built up such an impossible stockpile of anticipatory goodwill that it was inevitable his second feature as a director would suffer some kind of sophomore slump. After his work on Lost, The Good Place, and (his debut feature) The Cabin in the Woods in particular, Goddard has become synonymous with high-concept philosophical interpretations of Purgatory. Goddard sets his most distinct projects in artificial environments where the morally judgmental voyeurism of the audience becomes part of the text. He uses this metatextual remove to explore the psychological & philosophical implications of audiences’ desire to judge fictional characters as either Good or Bad, Moral or Evil. His second feature, Bad Times at the El Royale, has all the makings of a perfect Drew Goddard project in that way. It’s set in a complexly mapped-out artificial environment that encourages voyeurism & moral judgements. It’s populated by troubled, mysterious characters who unsubtly teeter between Good and Bad on a moral scale. It’s also intricately constructed on a narrative level, coming together onscreen like a temporal puzzle or a Rube Goldberg contraption. Yet, there’s something lacking about Bad Times at the El Royale that keeps its overall effect disappointingly pedestrian, recalling Goddard’s creatively muted credits on Netflix’s Daredevil series or Ridley Scott’s The Martian. It’s a handsomely staged, frequently entertaining picture – yet it’s inevitable to feel letdown by it because we know Goddard can deliver so much more than that.

Even if Bad Times at the El Royale is a little underwhelming, its titular locale is a wonder of sinister-kitsch production design. A Lake Tahoe novelty destination that lost its luster as 60s swank descended into hippie rot, the hotel represents American culture in decline at one of its most turbulent times. Nixon, Vietnam, Hoover, Manson, Civil Rights protests, hippies, and heroin swirl around in the cultural zeitgeist outside the hotel like an especially morbid verse in “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” A perfectly preserved novelty from before those political flashpoints sparked a Cultural Revolution, the El Royale pretends on the surface to be a World’s Fair attraction vision of an idealized American past – complete with automatic food dispensers and a sense of lawless Wild West hedonism. Undercover G-men, bugged rooms, and a secret hallway that exposes each hotel guest to being spied on via two-way mirrors compromise that outdated idealism to reveal that the swanky 60s America of the past was no less sinister than the hippie 70s of the near future (the film is set in ’68). This is of no surprise to four guests who all converge at the El Royale at the exact same time to kickstart the film’s multilayered conflicts: a soul singer (Cynthia Erivo), a hippie (Dakota Johnson), a priest (Jeff Bridges), and a vacuum salesman (John Hamm, back in Don Draper drag). Each conceal mysteriously guarded identities & motives until all is inevitably revealed in an ultraviolent climax (excluding what was prematurely revealed in the film’s trailer). It all comes together with the routine precision of clockwork, mirroring both the cultural ticking clock of the setting and the patience-tested audience’s urge to check our wristwatches.

It’s difficult to parse out exactly why Bad Times at the El Royale lands as good-not-great, despite the wonders of its production design, costuming, performances, and intricate plotting. It could be that, at 140 minutes, the film is too narratively unwieldy to support the weight of its runtime. The nonlinear structure of the story, broken up into chapters by hotel room, certainly doesn’t help there; it’s difficult to become too invested in any particular story before film switches tracks & resets. That structure’s similarities to the post-Tarantino 90s aesthetic, echoed by its 60s soul needle drops & humorously overwritten dialogue, feels a little too familiar to land with any genuine awe (especially since it isn’t observed with any of Goddard’s signature meta critique). My best guess for Bad Times at the El Royale’s shortcomings, however, is that the film doesn’t fully commit to the supernatural Purgatory elements of its script that feels so uniquely menacing in Goddard’s superior works. The film feels like such a blatantly coded, exaggerated depiction of the 1960s’s cultural catharsis, covering everything from religion to drugs to race to sex to war, that it’s almost a shame the artificial conflict of that philosophical stew wasn’t made literal in the text. The way all four of the El Royale’s guests arrive at the same time feels like a fresh batch of applicants being processed as a group at the Pearly Gates. Snippets of dialogue & signage like “See You Again Soon,” “How did you end up at the El Royale?,” “This is no place for a priest,” and (from the advertising) “All roads lead here,” suggest a supernatural tour of the Afterlife, or at least something more philosophically sinister than the sprawling dramatic thriller that’s delivered instead.

We’ve seen Goddard strike gold with those philosophical breaks from reality before, so it’s tempting to want more of the same here. Either way, he’s demonstrated he can do something far more interesting than this handsomely staged, but logically well-behaved popcorn movie. I hope whatever he works on next is just a structurally complex, but infinitely more preposterous. I don’t need him to ground his meta-philosophical contraptions within the bounds of reality. Reality is limiting, if not outright boring.

-Brandon Ledet

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

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We here at Swampflix watch horror films year round, which is what makes it easy to slap together our annual Halloween Reports. Horror dominates our Movie of the Month selections and our topics for The Podcast. It’s a genre we return to eagerly & frequently no matter what the season. Still, there’s something particularly special about the ritual of watching horror films every October, a month-long celebration of the macabre. As often as we participate in this ritualistic horror binge, though, we rarely step back to think about what the ritual actually means. What’s the significance or the satisfaction of watching all these fictional victims, usually oversexed teenagers, die on camera in all of these ludicrous ways, whether at the hands of a somewhat realistic serial killer or by supernatural monster? The 2012 meta horror comedy Cabin in the Woods, delivered by Joss Whedon & close collaborator Drew Goddard, strives to answer that question on a philosophical level. The film is at once a celebration of the horror genre as a cruel, ritualistic blood sport that serves a significant purpose in the lives of its audience and a condemnation of that very same audience for participating in the ritual in the first place. An ambitious, self-reflective work of criticism in action, The Cabin in the Woods in one of the best horror films I’ve seen in recent years, not least of all for the way it makes me rethink the basic structure & intent of horror as an art from in the first place.

In essence, The Cabin in the Woods is two separate, competing films at once. One film is the most basic teens-hunted-by-zombies picture you can imagine, except equipped with the stagey nerd humor Whedon’s built his career around. The other film is a glimpse into the writer’s room & packed cinemas that would cruelly put those teens in zombie peril in the first place. A remote, NSA-reminiscent science lab is in the midst of an annual ritual where they lure a group of unsuspecting teens into a controlled environment (complete with the titular cabin) and influence them through chemicals & electronics to live out basic horror archetypes (the jock, the nerd, the whore, the fool, the final girl), effectively leading lambs to the slaughter. They’re horror directors in this way. Their predetermined, controlled environments are essentially genre tropes, horror convention. When they drug the victims of their rat maze to increase their libido or lower their intelligence they’re essentially writing their doom into a live-action screenplay. Curiously enough, they serve as the audience as well as the creator, watching enraptured as their victims are cruelly murdered and even, in a scene more or less lifting directly from Heathers, casually partying while someone is brutally assaulted in the background. It’s a high concept dynamic that not everyone will be game for, but it’s one that leads to some surprisingly smart, bleak self-analysis. As much as I enjoyed other recent meta horror comedies like The Final Girls or John Dies at the End that approached similar thematic territory, there’s a dedication and a follow-through to The Cabin in the Woods that I believe to be unmatched by its genre peers.

Something I greatly resect in this film is its openness about what it’s doing. The film begins from the perspective of the science lab, where a lesser work would’ve saved the artificiality of the environment for a last second reveal. The best part about The Cabin in the Woods is that it tips its hand so early, leaving the only true mystery to be when, exactly, its two competing films are going to meet and how much of a disaster it will be. The film is patient with the payoff of those two worlds clashing, but also so thorough and so ambitious with its follow-through that waiting for the hammer to fall is actually a large part of its appeal. A straightforward zombie picture set in the woods would’ve rang formulaic & hollow, no matter how much Whedon’s spin on the dialogue attempted to set it apart, to the point where a go-for-broke third act reveal of the influence of the science lab would’ve played like a cheat. Instead, we get a full-length reflection on how the two films interact, a dynamic that has a lot to say about how horror audiences interact with film in general. It’s pretty rare to see something that confident & dedicated play out on the screen, no matter what genre.

I can comfortably say I’m far from the biggest Whedon fan. His Avengers work is fairly decent (and it’s cool to see him writing for a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth as an idiot jock here), but I’m not the right kind of pop culture nerd who wistfully daydreams about the good ol’ days of Firefly or Buffy. I’m ambivalent. If The Cabin in the Woods were merely one of those Whedon productions that take place in an alternate universe where teens & 20 somethings always have something clever to say, I wouldn’t have been onboard, which is probably why it took me so long to watch it in the first place. I don’t know if it was the collaborative effort with Goddard (who, sadly, hasn’t helmed another film before or since) or what, but Whedon’s usual schtick is still detectable here, except put to a career-high effectiveness that actually makes his dedication to cleverness count for something. The way The Cabin in the Woods dismantles horror tropes and holds a (two-way) mirror up to the audience who would typically eat them up is, without question, pure brilliance. I can’t think of a better film to recommend during the Halloween season, when binging on formulaic horror is at its peak ritualistic significance. The places this film takes you in its third act alone will add clarity & perspective to your horror watching habits in a way most films could only dream of, all while delivering a satisfactory dose of the very tropes you lust after as a bloodthirsty audience. I could see making screenings of this movie an annual ritual of its own, if not only to hold onto the way it enhances enjoyment of the other, less mindful horrors I’ll be watching anyway.

-Brandon Ledet