Film Review: ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’

SPOILER ALERT: Those responsible for “Bad Times at the El Royale” have gone to great lengths to hide its secrets. While this review attempts to respect the film’s key twists, it may be better read after you’ve seen the movie.

A line runs right through the middle of Lake Tahoe’s Cal Neva Resort & Casino, splitting the swimming pool between two states: Step into the shallow end on the California side, and the water gets progressively deeper as you cross over into Nevada. A tangled nest of mysteries and rumors in its own right, the Cal Neva was clearly the inspiration for the retro-kitsch hotel where “Bad Times at the El Royale” goes down, and though none of the film’s five (give or take) guests ever finds time to visit the pool — they’re too busy slapping, shooting, and spying on one another for that — it’s pretty fair to say they’re all in over their heads.

That’s also true for writer-director Drew Goddard, a key contributor to the cult-beloved “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the quasi-occult “Lost.” Groundbreaking as those shows may have been, his ambitions outstrip his abilities this time around. Goddard’s second feature arrives shrouded in secrecy, as if to preserve some great surprise the knowledge of which will ruin the experience for audiences (in that respect, read on at your own risk). The biggest surprise — a shocker, really, given what fans have come to expect from Goddard six years after his deranged big-screen debut, “The Cabin in the Woods” — is that “Bad Times” isn’t very good.

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