Credit: John P. Johnson/Twentieth Century Fox

In this fall’s mystery-box thriller Bad Times at the El Royale, from writer-director Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods), seven strangers — all with secrets to bury — meet at Lake Tahoe’s El Royale, a rundown hotel with a dark past. Already on hand to welcome them is a young concierge (Lewis Pullman).

Among the gathered rogues: a down-on-his-luck priest (Jeff Bridges), a singer named Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), an impressionable Southern girl (Cailee Spaeny) and her older sister (Dakota Johnson), a vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm), and — perhaps most enigmatically — a charismatic and shirt-averse cult leader, played by Chris Hemsworth.

Over the course of one eventful night, each of these shady characters is offered a shot at redemption — that is, before everything goes to hell.

If that sounds vague, Goddard’s well-aware. “Like everything I do, it’s hard to describe in one sentence,” the writer-director tells EW, which can share three exclusive first look photos from the film (above and below). Goddard is wary of revealing too much about Bad Times, which he calls a “love letter” to ’60s film noir and crime fiction, as well as his shot at making a big ensemble picture.

“Rather than starting from an idea and a logline, this started from a basic premise: A bunch of characters check into a hotel on one night in 1969, and nobody is who they appear,” explains Goddard, who was Oscar-nominated for writing The Martian. “I started with that very simple concept, wrote the roles, and then let the characters dictate the story.”

Credit: Kimberley French/Twentieth Century Fox

Like The Cabin in the Woods, a gloriously meta riff on the horror genre, Bad Times takes place over the course of one eventful night, at a mysterious locale within which its characters are being watched (but by who exactly?), and features Hemsworth in a prominent role.

But don’t look for too many similarities between the projects, says Goddard. “The Cabin in the Woods was very much about the genre itself; this certainly is not. It’s more of a straightforward narrative.” What they have in common, he says, is a shared “sense of danger,” something he often finds is lacking in big-budget, franchise productions. “It definitely shares the boldness in choice that Cabin has,” he says of Bad Times. “We certainly don’t play it safe.”

Goddard was drawn to a setting he felt could evoke neon-stroked noir cinema while representing the same moral turmoil contained in his characters. “This is a country going through transition, a country whose dreams and hopes had been shattered and was facing darkness,” explains Goddard. “I found that background very interesting. 1969 was just a tumultuous time.”

Goddard is tight-lipped about which real-life historical figures could turn up at the El Royale, though he teases that “certain characters who were alive at the time” do appear.

Primarily, he sees Bad Times as a workout for his stars, a chance to pit some of his favorite actors against one another. “It really stems from wanting to give these actors a stage and let it explode outward from there,” he says.

Bad Times at the El Royale opens Oct. 5, but expect a trailer in the near future.

Credit: Kimberley French/Twentieth Century Fox
Bad Times at the El Royale
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