Is pulp a genre squeezed dry, or can the right writer-director still find new juice in a tale as old as midnight-movie time? Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) does his baby-Tarantino best with the low-concept, high-style Bad Times at the El Royale — a riot of plot points and famous faces run bloodily amok in the dollhouse diorama of a mystery motel situated smack on the California-Nevada border.
A few hard years past its Rat Pack glory days, the Royale’s lobby looks like a casino without a clientele; all wet bars, gold banquettes, and swirly carpeting. But suddenly the lone employee, a jumpy bellhop named Miles (Lewis Pullman), has traffic: a traveling salesman (Jon Hamm), a singer (Cynthia Erivo), a Catholic priest (Jeff Bridges), and a pouty-lipped hippie (Dakota Johnson), each with their own luggage, and baggage.
How they’ll connect — and how many will live through the night — is ostensibly Bad’s endgame. Mostly, though, it’s an excuse to let a bunch of talented actors loose, and they meet the bare-bones script more than halfway. Chris Hemsworth especially has a great, hammy turn as a mad cult leader with butterscotch abs and a brain full of spiders.
But it’s British stage actress Erivo who feels like the real star. Her steely charisma and gorgeous powerhouse of a voice (Goddard takes every plausible opportunity to let her loose on a classic 1960s songbook; can you blame him?) is what gives the movie not just a different kind of heroine, but a heart.