“I will shoot you in the face, believe me.” “I believe you.” One of the glories of Bad Times at the El Royale is that, by a certain point, this exchange could be between any one of the six main characters. American writer-director Drew Goddard made his name as a scriptwriter with a bent towards the supernatural and space, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer on TV to The Martian, for which he received an Oscar nomination.
In this, his second movie as a director, he considers an alien we all encounter every day: other people. Everyone is more than they seem to be. Inside, we all have more going on, for good or bad, than anyone else realises.
The setting is a motel that straddles the border between California and Nevada. A red line runs through the property, marking one state from the other. “Warmth and sunshine in the west, hope and opportunity in the east,’’ is the promise. It was a hoot back in the day, as the celebrity snapshots on the walls show, but now it’s run-down and all but deserted.
The movie opens with a brilliantly structured scene in which a man checks into a room. He’s besuited and silent. It’s the late 1950s. Something happens in that room. A decade later — a television shows us that Richard Nixon is president — three people walk into the motel lobby, looking for rooms. They’re not together.
Let’s just call them what they are on first Bad Times at the El Royale (MA 15+) National release Halloween (MA15+) National release sight: a Catholic priest (Jeff Bridges), a soul singer (Cynthia Erivo) and a vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm). After some awkward delay they are met by the motel clerk (Lewis Pullman). They are soon joined by a hippie (Dakota Johnson). Australia’s Chris Hemsworth doesn’t appear till later, but he is worth waiting for. He’s a cult leader. Charles Manson comes to mind.
This extended scene in the lobby creates an almost unbearable tension, and that’s well before Hemsworth brings his game along. We immediately have suspicions about some of the characters. This will only intensify, and perhaps shift a bit, as the film goes on and secrets of the people — and of the hotel — are revealed.
The performances are all top-notch, especially from Erivo and Bridges. And Pullman’s gradual emergence as someone who is more than a motel clerk is an eye-opener. The son of Bill Pullman, he’s a young actor to watch.
Goddard and Oscar-nominated Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey show us what happens in a slow but absorbing way. Our view of events is not the same as that of the characters. I applaud Goddard for having the courage, in this multiplex age, to drop hints as to who else and what else might be involved in the story but to stop short of spelling it out. He also understands that any character is expendable.
The soundtrack captures the radical shift from the 50s to 60s. As a friend notes, the motel jukebox is a character. The movies that came to mind as I watched were 40s and 50s noir crime dramas such as John Huston's Key Largo, with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Edward G. Robinson, and the earlier work of the Coen brothers, particularly Barton Fink (1990). Of course hotels feature in both those movies.
Bad Times at the El Royale is a rare beast: a 140-minute film in which every minute deserves to be there. Halloween, the 1978 original, directed, cowritten and scored by filmmaker and composer John Carpenter, is a pioneer of the slasher genre. The movie, the screen debut of Jamie Lee Curtis, was criticised as misogynistic, voyeuristic and over-violent, and for sharing a psychopath’s point of view. It was also watched by a lot of people. It cost $US350,000 to make and earned $US70 million. That success led to nine follow-ups, including a remake in 2007.
Now, with the 11th movie in the franchise, we have something a little daring. Halloween, directed by David Gordon Green, is a direct sequel to the original that ignores all the movies in between. It is set 40 years later and Laurie Strode (Curtis), the only survivor of Michael Meyers’s Halloween night murder of teenage girls in an Illinois town, is a grandmother.
In the opening sequence, the best in the movie, two journalists meet Michael (Nick Castle continues in the role) at the mental asylum where he’s been held since 1978. He has not spoken in that time. When one of the journalists holds up the ghoul mask Michael wore, the response from the other inmates is harrowing.
The Halloween killer is about to be moved to a new facility on — huge suspension of disbelief required here — Halloween. Ditto with the fact that the people in this town still leave large carving knifes unattended.
Laurie has been confined too. She lives in a fortified house and has lots of guns. Her daughter and granddaughter think she should forget about the past and move on, a judgment that is tested when Michael escapes from the transfer bus. He soon shows that his tastes have broadened beyond teenage babysitters. When he approaches a baby’s crib it is hard to watch.
The twist is that Laurie does not want to run and hide. She wants to kill Michael. “He’s waited for me. I have waited for him.”
This looming face-off between victim and killer carries the movie, which is a solid enough addition to the series. Will gun-toting Laurie see off knife-wielding Michael? I think the town sheriff may have an insight there. He admits that Michael being out and about on this particular date is bad news but adds: “But wadda ya gunna do? Cancel Halloween?”
Chris Hemsworth in Bad Times at the El Royale, left; Jamie Lee Curtis in the latest instalment of Halloween, above