Bad times at the Cabin in the Woods

Drew Goddard has a history of dabbling with ‘genre’ pieces. But what is ‘genre fiction’? Snobbishly speaking, we could say it’s the home of vampires, hard-boiled detectives, robots, dragons – and anything else that doesn’t have the decency to be concerned with good old-fashioned real life. ‘Genre fiction’ is anything that doesn’t deserve the respect of self-proclaimed serious adults. As soon as Darren Aronofsky’s MOTHER! began to accrue awards buzz, it was no longer a ‘horror film’; it became a ‘psychological thriller.’ ‘Genre fiction’ rarely wins Oscars, but it does win love. It is unlikely that SPOTLIGHT or THE KING’S SPEECH have earned the sort of widespread adoration that builds fandoms – but genre fiction, with its feet a little further off the ground, has the power to inspire lasting love. And this is where Drew Goddard unashamedly plies his trade, with superheroes (Netflix’s DAREDEVIL), vampire slayers (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER), city-wrecking monsters (CLOVERFIELD) and space (THE MARTIAN). Goddard has always approached his projects with intelligent affection. But with THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012), his first directorial outing, he brought something more – an eye not only to celebrate genre conventions, but to subvert them. Now that his second film, BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE, is in cinemas, it seems hardly fair to assess one without discussing the other. From a director interested in deconstructing genre, where does BAD TIMES succeed, and where does it fail?

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012) is a punchy, shamelessly entertaining directorial debut. Five American college kids head off to spend a weekend ‘off the grid’ in the titular spooky cabin. They are warned to stay away by a strange local (who seems likely to be a cannibal or, at the very least, to have married his sister), but proceed anyway. After a night of youthful excess, they trigger their own doom by messing with forces they don’t understand. This is a setup lifted very closely from THE EVIL DEAD (1981) – and at this point you may be wondering what the fuss is all about. The difference is that, before we even meet our all-American heroes, we know this is an artificial scenario.  The familiar deaths and scares that echo HALLOWEEEN (1978) and THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSCARE (1974) are actually a form of ritual sacrifice, engineered from behind the scenes by harassed middle-aged men. This is a very clever premise, allowing the film to both discuss horror conventions (‘if they don’t transgress, they can’t be punished’; ‘the virgin’s death is optional’) and honour them. In this way, CABIN is the spiritual successor to Wes Craven’s SCREAM films, dissecting its subject with scalpel-keen wit and ultimately resulting in joyful monster-ridden carnage that will leave any horror buff chuckling and satisfied. (Fans of HELLRAISER will be particularly tickled by the sight of Fornicus, Lord of Bondage and Pain.)

Both the people and the place are replete with dark secrets…

At first glance, BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE has plenty in common with CABIN. The setup is instantly familiar – one stormy night, five strangers come together at the El Royale, a motel split exactly in half by the state line between California and Nevada. They’re a motley crew: an unpleasant vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), an African-American singer (Cynthia Erivo) and a priest (Jeff Bridges) among others. Both the people and the place are replete with dark secrets. Over the course of the night, hidden motivations come to light and violence ensues. Throw in a sack of money, kidnapping, hard drugs, voyeurism and Motown – and you have yourself a neo-noir thriller. Goddard is not aiming to deconstruct a horror film here – instead, he is aiming for an area largely inhabited, in the popular consciousness, by Quentin Tarantino in works such as THE HATEFUL EIGHT.

There are plenty of things to like about BAD TIMES. Goddard introduces his initial round of characters very cleverly – each person presenting a false face at the reception desk as they sign the visitor’s log. Soon after, we observe them from behind the one-way glass mirrors in their rooms (a motif that echoes CABIN) – and realise instantly that no-one is who they appear to be. Details are filled in by flashbacks in the style of RESERVOIR DOGS, and by the performances of a charismatic cast. Cynthia Erivo (a talent to watch) is particularly fine as Darlene Sweet, a world-weary singer who serves as the film’s emotional and moral centre – observing the descent into chaos with unflinching eyes. As descents into chaos go, it’s not bad looking, replete with beautiful symmetrical shots which echo the bi-state nature of the motel itself. As the carnage mounts, the colour palette is steeped in the black, red and gold that recall the El Royale’s history as a haven for gamblers. As a genre, neo-noir has a strong tradition of betraying not only its characters but its audience – double-crosses and bait-and-switch abound. Goddard pays homage to this by constantly pulling the rug out from under us. Our sympathies bounce from person to person with each revelation. Apparently evil deeds are committed with the best of intentions – weak, snivelling characters may hide violently competent depths – and a decade-old stash of money is revealed to be small fry beside the hidden bounty of the El Royale. In defiance of the rules of the genre, not all the characters have suspect motives – but every single one of them has sharp edges, concealed or not.

… nothing more than juicy berries to be crushed in a ruthless death-machine …

Nonetheless the film is far from perfect. BAD TIMES is set to an excellent soundtrack, good-looking and often good fun. But it isn’t as fun as it should be. Next to its big brother THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, it is undeniably the weaker film. While BAD TIMES is undoubtedly worth watching, it ironically suffers from many of the diseases of the very films which it attempts to discuss. For example, forcing the audience to reassess their sympathies is a classic convention of neo-noir cinema (see the Danny Boyle’s feature debut SHALLOW GRAVE for a more stripped-down example). However, the constant switching of protagonists and rug-pulling can cause the audience to become emotionally disconnected. It is difficult to care about characters whose heroic status is only solidified for the last ten minutes. Conversely CABIN is a successful horror flick in that we are always rooting for our hapless protagonists, despite the fact that (from the beginning) they have been presented as nothing more than juicy berries to be crushed in a ruthless death-machine.

A second weakness of BAD TIMES is that it feels a little auteurial. This is not so unusual for a neo-noir film, especially in the age of Quentin Tarantino. But greater directorial control is not necessarily a good thing. While fans of QT may luxuriate in the ‘auteur’s vision’ exercised in the THE HATEFUL EIGHT, plenty will acknowledge that it is an overlong piece made flabby by monologuing. In common with QT’s latest work, BAD TIMES could do with tightening up its meandering pace and perhaps losing twenty minutes. (It’s only 18 minutes shorter than AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, which features almost 20 named superheroes, four films’ worth of narrative, and a cosmic megaton of studio pressure.) Combined with the threat of emotional disconnection, this means that some parts of BAD TIMES drag. In contrast, at barely longer than 90 minutes, CABIN is a finely-tuned machine, delivering with every scene.

CABIN is exploring a very, very specific subgenre …

Lastly, BAD TIMES has problems not only with its pace but with its general focus. This, too, comes down to the choice of genre. One of the key differences between Goddard’s directorial debut and his difficult second album is that CABIN is exploring a very, very specific subgenre: the zone between THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and THE EVIL DEAD. Whilst it acknowledges the existence of other horror traditions (the Japanese schoolgirl ghost story is played out across the Pacific), the journey of our heroes is, up until the end, a well-worn path that all will recognise. Such a journey can be deconstructed piece by piece, each trope appearing gift-wrapped and identifiable, ready to be discussed: the rule that if you have sex, you die; the hostile local as a harbinger of doom; the obligatory topless scene; the final girl. Crucially, CABIN lays out clear rules which can be defied. This makes it a focused and satisfying piece.

In contrast, BAD TIMES is concerned with neo-noir – a famously amorphous genre united more by its themes (violence, antiheroics and nihilism) than by the characters’ journey. The film is aiming at a more diffuse target, and is therefore necessarily less focused. The rules of the story are not always clear to us from the beginning. Additionally, since neo-noir pieces regularly aim to subvert our expectations, attempts to deconstruct their conventions can come across not as commentary but as a standard part of the narrative. Perhaps the most subversive thing about BAD TIMES is that some of its characters are actually good people.

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