By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 31, 2009)
Where the wild things are.
“People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.” So states a character in the 1932 classic, Grand Hotel. Obviously, he never stayed in any of the caravansaries on tonight’s top ten list, where the bad experiences go a bit beyond iffy room service or a fly in the soup. So on this spooky Halloween evening, I triple dog dare you to check in to any of these flops! Per usual, I present them in no particular ranking order. Um, enjoy your stay…
The film: Barton Fink
Where not to stay: The Hotel Earle
This is one of two films on my list involving blocked writers and eerie hotels (I’ll entertain anyone’s theory on why they seem to go hand-in-hand). The Coen brothers bring their usual sense of gleeful cruelty and ironic detachment into play in this story (set in the early 1940s) of a New York playwright with “integrity” (John Turturro) who wrestles with his conscience after reluctantly accepting an offer from a Hollywood studio to transplant himself to L.A. and grind out screenplays for soulless formula films. Thanks to some odd goings-on at his hotel, that soon becomes the very least of his problems. The film is a very close cousin to Day of the Locust, although perhaps slightly less grotesque and more darkly funny. John Goodman and Judy Davis are also on hand, and in top form.
The film: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Where not to stay: The Mint Hotel
Okay, so the hotel in this one isn’t so bad. It’s the behavior going on in one of the rooms:
When I came to, the general back-alley ambience of the suite was so rotten, so incredibly foul. How long had I been lying there? All these signs of violence. What had happened? There was evidence in this room of excessive consumption of almost every type of drug known to civilized man since 1544 AD… These were not the hoof prints of your average God-fearing junkie. It was too savage. Too aggressive.
Terry Gilliam’s manic, audience-polarizing adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s classic blend of gonzo journalism and hilariously debauched, anarchic invention may be too savage and aggressive for some, but it’s one of those films I am compelled to revisit on an annual basis. Johnny Depp’s turn as Thompson’s alter-ego, Raoul Duke, is one for the ages. My favorite line: “You’d better pray to God there’s some Thorazine in that bag.”
The film: Key Largo
Where not to stay: The Largo Hotel
Humphrey Bogart gives a smashing performance as a WW2 vet who drops by a Florida hotel to pay his respects to its proprietors- the widow (Lauren Bacall) and father (Lionel Barrymore) of one of the men who had served under his command. Initially just “passing through”, he is waylaid by a convergence of two angry tempests: an approaching hurricane and the appearance of Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson). Rocco is a notorious gangster, who, along with his henchmen, takes the hotel residents hostage while they ride out the storm. It’s interesting to see Bogie play a gangster’s victim for a change (in one of his earlier starring vehicles, The Petrified Forest, and later on in one of his final films, The Desperate Hours, he essentially played the Edward G. Robinson character). The entire cast is spectacular. Along with The Maltese Falcon and The Asphalt Jungle, it’s one of John Huston’s finest contributions to the classic noir cycle.
The film: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog
Where not to stay: Mrs. Bunting’s Lodging House
Mrs. Bunting is a pleasant landlady and all, but we’re not so sure about her latest boarder. There’s a possibility that he is “The Avenger”, a brutal serial killer who is stalking London. Ivor Novello plays the gentleman in question, an intense, brooding fellow with a vaguely menacing demeanor. Is he or isn’t he? No worries, I’m not going to spoil it for you! This suspense thriller has been remade umpteen times over the last eight decades, but IMHO none of them can touch Hitchcock’s 1927 silent for atmosphere and mood. Novello later reprised the role of the mysterious lodger in Maurice Elvey’s 1932 version.
The film: Motel Hell
Where not to stay: Motel Hello
OK, all together now (you know the words!): “It takes all kinds of critters…to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters!” Rory Calhoun gives a sly performance as the cheerfully psychotic Vincent Smith, proprietor of the Motel Hello (oh my, there seems to be an electrical short in the neon “O”. Bzzzt!). Funny thing is, no one ever seems to check in (no one certainly ever checks out). Vincent and his oddball sister (Nancy Parsons) prefer to concentrate on the, ah, family’s “world-famous” smoked meat business. Despite the exploitative horror trappings, Kevin Conner’s black comedy (scripted by brothers Steven-Charles and Robert Jaffe) is a surprisingly smart genre spoof and actually quite well-made. The finale, involving a swashbuckling duel with chainsaws, is pure twisted genius.
The film: Mystery Train
Where not to stay: The Arcade Hotel
Elvis’ ghost shakes, rattles and rolls (literally and figuratively) all throughout Jim Jarmusch’s culture clash dramedy/love letter to the “Memphis Sound”. In his typically droll and deadpan manner, Jarmusch constructs a series of episodic vignettes that loosely intersect at a seedy hotel. You’ve gotta love any movie that features Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as a night clerk. Also be on the lookout for music legends Rufus Thomas and Joe Strummer, and you will hear the mellifluous voice of Tom Waits on the radio (undoubtedly a call back to his DJ character in Jarmusch’s previous film, Down by Law).
The film: The Night of the Iguana
Where not to stay: The Hotel Costa Verde
Director John Huston and co-writer Anthony Veiller adapted this sordid, blackly comic soaper from Tennessee Williams’ stage play about a defrocked minister (Richard Burton) who has expatriated himself to Mexico, where he has become a part-time tour guide and a full-time alcoholic. One day he goes off the deep end, and shanghais a busload of Baptist college teachers to an isolated, rundown hotel run by an “old friend” (Ava Gardner). Add a sexually precocious teenager (Sue Lyon, recycling her Lolita persona) and a grifter with a prim and proper exterior (Deborah Kerr), and stir.
Most of the Williams archetypes are present and accounted for: dipsomaniacs, nymphets, repressed lesbians and neurotics of every stripe. The bloodletting is mostly verbal, but mortally wounding all the same. Burton and Kerr are great, as always. I think this is my favorite Ava Gardner performance; she’s earthy, sexy, heartbreaking, intimidating, and endearingly girlish-all at once.
The film: The Night Porter
Where not to stay: The Hotel zur Oper
Disturbing, repulsive, yet compelling, Liliana Cavani’s film brilliantly uses a depiction of sadomasochism and sexual politics as an allusion to the horrors of Hitler’s Germany. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling are broodingly decadent as a former SS officer and a concentration camp survivor, respectively, who become entwined in a twisted, doomed relationship years after WW2. You’d have to search high and low to find two braver performances than Bogarde and Rampling give here. I think the film has been unfairly maligned and misunderstood over the years; frequently lumped in with exploitative Nazi kitsch like Ilsa, SheWolf of the SS or Salon Kitty. That’s a real shame.
The film: Psycho
Where not to stay: Bates Motel
Bad, bad Norman. Such a disappointment to his mother. “MOTHERRRR!!!” Poor, poor Janet Leigh. No sooner had she recovered from her bad motel experience in Touch of Evil than she found herself checking in to the Bates and having a late dinner in a dimly lit office, surrounded by Norman’s creepy taxidermy collection. And this is only the warm up to what director Alfred Hitchcock has in store for her later that evening. This brilliant shocker from the Master has spawned so many imitations, I long ago lost count. Anthony Perkins sets the bar pretty high for all future movie psycho killers. Anyone for a shower?
The film: The Shining
Where not to stay: The Overlook Hotel
Stephen King hates Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his sprawling novel. Fuck him-that’s his personal problem. I think this is the greatest horror film ever made. Period. Jack Nicholson discovers that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Jack Nicholson discovers that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Jack Nicholson discovers that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Jack Nicholson discovers that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Jack Nicholson discovers…oh. Sorry. Uh, never mind…
Happy Halloween, everyone!