“It was a dark and stormy night”.... The classic setup has come to exist in a space in between genres. It serves murder mysteries, suspense, heist, thriller, comedy, and horror just as well. More recent entries blend elements of each so gracefully that it winds up being none of them. If anything then El Royal is a haunted house film even if it takes place in a secular sphere.
The characters this time, at least at the formal introduction are an elderly Catholic Priest, Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges); an R&B singer, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo); a tart young woman who identifies herself only as “Fuck You” (Dakota Johnson); a traveling vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm); and a the sole employee of the El Royal Hotel, Miles (Lewis Pullman). They all come together at the hotel as a storm brews on the horizon. It doesn’t serve any purpose to go deeper than that. All but one of these characters is not what they seem. More characters will find their way to the hotel over the course of the night. The great joy in a picture like this is seeing all the little mysteries unfold. There’s little point in spoiling them. The whole of El Royal is one mystery folding into another.
The El Royal hotel itself is a wonderful cinematic creation. Half of the complex sits in California, and the other half in Nevada. A bright red demarcation line halves the parking lot and runs right through the main lodge. It allows for all manner of symmetrical visual compositions from cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. They pepper the picture even when the line isn’t in the frame. As benefiting the “haunted house” designation it contains a whole underbelly with hidden passages and buried treasures scattered throughout.
El Royal is a great cinematic affair. This is a feature in the mold of Scorsese and Tarantino’s brassiest films. There’s plenty of vintage soul songs both the familiar original versions and in performances especially for this production. Had El Royal been released in the nineties it would’ve had to contend with a glut of similar films aping these directors. In 2018 it can exist as a charming throwback, one more genre on top of the rest.
This is very much a product of this cultural moment despite its indebtedness to Scorsese and Taratino; and its early-seventies setting. The women here have their own agency and are far removed from damsel-in-distress tropes. With a modern perspective, like recent genre feature Inherent Vice, El Royal exists as a post mortem on the early 70s. The great bugaboos of the era Vietnam, and Nixon, rarely directly appeared in the features of the era. They haunted the margins of seemingly every story, yet seldom took center stage. There’s about as much screen time for Richard Nixon here than in All the President’s Men, and there’s even a full Vietnam sequence at El Royal’s climax.
Haunted Houses are reliable entertainment, but rarely make for great features. Largely this is due to its thin characters. All they tend to be is just a simple mystery in search of a resolution. There’s little in the way of depth, and once their core mystery is divulged they sit and wait judgement from the plot. These films rarely ask their characters to grow as a result of their ordeals, they simply survive or they don’t. El Royal tips its hat to this reality. Darlene Sweet deduces the whole backstory of one of the mysterious guests in a tart monolog. She shuts down her subject who freezes in place, completely devoid of his previous swagger. In these films, without their core mystery the characters can barely exist.