A bunch of seemingly unrelated characters find themselves at seedy John Hawkes’ motel in Nevada on a dark and seriously stormy night. John Cusack is limo driver to faded Hollywood actress Rebecca DeMornay (no, the character is not named Rebecca DeMornay). John C. McGinley is the wimpy, uptight family man and stepfather to young Bret Loehr, whose wife Cusack accidentally runs down. Amanda Peet plays a prostitute, Ray Liotta is a cop transporting a dangerous prisoner (Jake Busey), and Clea Duvall is a young newlywed. One by one, someone appears to be bumping the weary travellers off in brutal fashion, with numbered motel keys left by their bodies. One of them must be the killer, they begin to suspect. Meanwhile, a deranged serial killer (Pruitt Taylor Vince) is having a midnight court hearing for an insanity plea, before he is to be executed tomorrow. Alfred Molina plays a psychiatrist.
Here’s a nifty horror/mystery you might’ve missed. Smartly scripted by Michael Cooney (“The I Inside”, and the “Jack Frost” that didn’t star Michael Keaton), this 2003 film from eclectic director James Mangold (“Walk the Line”, “Cop Land”, “Knight and Day”, “Logan”) film is like a horror version of “Ten Little Indians” but capped off with at least one twist that you won’t see coming (the very final twist is a little easier to find). If you say you saw it coming, you are a LIAR and you sleep on a bed of LIES. Like “The Usual Suspects”, the big twist does make sense, it’s just that the film isn’t about what you thought it was. If you complain, it’s because you don’t like being fooled. I think it’s one of the best and most underrated horror films of the 00s.
One is immediately impressed by the oppressive, stormy atmosphere from the outset, well-captured by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (“Poison Ivy”, “Cool Runnings”, “The Descendants”). It’s almost unbearably foreboding even before the plot and main characters kick in. Mangold might be better known for dramas, but he’s got a better handle on atmosphere than many other so-called horror directors of the last 20 or so years. He’s no journeyman hack or MTV graduate, the guy’s a real filmmaker.
The characters are stock, but thankfully it’s a rare horror film where the cast is somewhat varied in age. The B+ cast is eclectic, and whilst some of the actors have narrow range, pretty much everyone is well-cast here, though Alfred Molina is wasted. John C. McGinley shows his versatility by playing it meek and panicky, instead of being the cynical hard-arse he is most often seen playing (on “Scrubs” especially). It’s no surprise he appeared in a movie called “Intensity” (playing a kidnapper), because that’s generally the thread through all of his performances: Intensity. Jake Busey is hilarious as a very unapologetic serial killer, for some reason he just plain makes me smile when on screen. A red-haired and almost unrecognisable Rebecca DeMornay, meanwhile is perfectly cast as a selfish bitch. She doesn’t stick around long, but the character is absolutely in her wheelhouse. I’m not a huge Amanda Peet fan, but here she adds some personality to a very clichéd role, and the film certainly benefits from having her in it. The best work is done by John Cusack, John Hawkes, Pruitt Taylor Vince, and Ray Liotta. Cusack is Cusack, and provides a very relatable lead character for the audience to immediately side with. Although he is cast as a cop, Ray Liotta’s dark, intense eyes and past history of playing untrustworthy characters helps to keep a little bit of doubt in the air about his character. John Hawkes is great, sleazy fun as the least trustworthy motel owner since Norman Bates. With his intense, rapidly darting eyes and heavy-set frame, character actor Pruitt Taylor Vince is always an unsettling presence on screen, and playing a supposedly insane serial killer possibly about to be fried, is right up the man’s alley.
Mangold and screenwriter Michael Cooney are having a blast here, with the latter bringing a lot of Agatha Christie, whilst both of them throw in references to “Psycho” (especially the Peet and Hawkes characters), and Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” in an overt visual reference in one scene featuring a frightened Clea DuVall. Watching the film multiple times now, I have to say that both Mangold and Cooney have done an excellent job of hiding the big reveals through distractions, plausible suspects, and minor twists and turns. Bravura filmmaking, the film slowly starts to unravel its ultimate reveal after about 70 minutes and it just keeps going from there. I also think Cooney deserves credit for drawing several vivid characters whose situation is interesting and well-staged. It’s not a mere gimmick fest here. The screenplay is smarter than average and the cast is rock-solid, but the film’s look and direction really put it over the line. The mixture of neon signage, teeming rain, and almost black night-time lighting is very attractive, very atmospheric and quite creepy.
The combination of mystery, excellent twist, eclectic cast, and a genuine filmmaker make this a better than average horror film to say the least. The atmosphere is excellently captured and the film keeps on piling on twists and turns throughout, so you’re bound to be wrong about some of them. A seriously underappreciated genre film.