If a computer algorithm were to generate a movie about the late 1960s and early ’70s, using information solely gleaned from the films of Quentin Tarantino, the result might look something like Bad Times at the El Royale. A femme fatale with a dark secret? A scary-sexy cult leader? Muscle cars? Fringe jackets? Hot dog, this thing’s got it all!
With Bad Times at the El Royale, writer/director Drew Goddard attempts to cram all the terror and confusion of that era—from Watergate to Vietnam to the Manson murders—into a kitschy roadside motel that straddles the California-Nevada border. Surrounded by tall ponderosa pines, it seems like the perfect setting for a claustrophobic thriller, similar to the titular cabin from Goddard’s feature debut, 2012’s excellent Cabin in the Woods. Unfortunately, by the end, I was just glad Bad Times was over.
It’s not exactly bad; there’s just way too much going on. It seems like Goddard’s priority was creating an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, with five strangers who are lying about their identities stuck in this eerie alpine waypost in the middle of a storm. But every character feels like they were sent from the stereotype factory, and the cheap thrills—the best parts of the movie—get overshadowed by cloying sentimentality and forced attempts to inject depth into what should’ve been nonstop dumb fun.
That said, some people will love Bad Times; it’s an odd hybrid of noir and horror, with smoky tension and violent jump scares. And Goddard’s cartoonish novelty version of 1969 is, at the very least, nice to look at (though the glossy set looks like it was designed by someone who’s never actually stayed at a seedy motel). To be honest, I was more enraptured for the 15 minutes it took to read “The Voyeur’s Motel,” the 2016 New Yorker article about a man who bought a motel outside of Denver in the 1970s to watch guests have sex, than I was for any part of this two-and-a-half-hour film.