The James Clayton Column: terrifying hotels in the movies

In this week’s column, James looks back at the phenomenon of terrifying hotels in the movies, from The Shining to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel...

Last year when I went travelling abroad, I decided to not to stay in a hotel and went couchsurfing instead. Hotels are so clichéd and couchsurfing sounded like something fun and outrageous that Tom Cruise would do.

If you want a totally inaccurate idea of what couchsurfing involved, picture me (on a good day I’m the spitting image of Cuba Gooding, Jr) riding waves with Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves in Point Break, except I’m straddling a sofa instead of a surfboard.

In reality, couchsurfing meant I stayed with incredibly friendly locals who generously welcomed me into their home. I got an authentic travel experience and fresh perspectives as I hung with cool people who graciously shared their insights and local knowledge. I also saved a lot of money, which was a bonus.

One of the truly great things about couchsurfing is that it cuts one of the worst aspects of travelling right out of the equation. I’m talking, of course, about hotels – perilous places of despair with the latent potential to turn jolly holidays into hellish ordeals that leave you crying for home.If memories of mediocre vacations past aren’t immediately coming to mind to confirm my point, think on the hotels that have appeared in movies.

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Sure, these depictions may be exaggerated and highly stylised to fit in with extraordinary plots and the need to make cinematic, invigorating visual entertainment. This is only dressing up the crucial underlying truth, though, that hotels are houses of dread. Don’t believe the blurb and photos in the brochure – you’re better off heeding the screen portrayals that reflect reality more honestly and adjusting your travel plans accordingly.

Off the top of my head I recall the Overlook Hotel of The Shining, Hotel Earle of Barton Fink, the Bates Motel in Psycho and the Cornish guesthouse run by Rowan Atkinson in The Witches. Those are only a select few scary stopover joints that emerge out of cinema history and continue to unnerve audiences.

Having vicariously experienced many horror hotels in film, real life trips are now tainted by the terror they’ve inspired. When I’m back in my room I have far-fetched notions that next door all kinds of obscene depravity is happening. All around me, behind the locked doors and ‘do not disturb’ signs scenes worse than anything witnessed in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas could be occurring. Gangsters on the run, sordid sex parties, drug deals, torture sessions, hookers, dead bodies, ghosts, hostage taking and so much more – it could only a matter of metres from you.

Even if these terrible things aren’t going on and my imagination is running riot under the bad influence of movies, the majority of hotels still remain unpleasant, peculiar places to stay even at their most mundane. I see parallels with the human battery structure of The Matrix – people packed in in order to be systematically stored and drained by a machine (in this case, the tourism industry).

The bed isn’t comfortable, the decor is drab, the minibar and pay-per-view TV is overpriced, the continental breakfast is most likely disappointing, you can’t get a decent cup of tea and the service is crap. To top it all off you’re surrounded by other British tourists and if you, like me, go abroad to escape British people this puts the whole ordeal into the realm of the intolerable. Couchsurfing strikes me as a far more appealing option.

None of this fills me with optimism as new flick The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel lands in multiplexes, in spite of the promises of its trailer. From the advertising reel I’m drawn towards a film that purports to offer a life-affirming look at the treasures of India as discovered by some of Britain’s most beloved veteran actors.

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We’re promised exoticism, amusing culture shock comedy, romance, colour, septuagenarian actor Ronald Pickup reading the Kama Sutra and the Slumdog Millionaire spouting perky mantras like, “Everything will be alright in the end, so if it is not alright, it is not yet the end!”

It looks like the kind of thing you’d take your grandma to see for a Sunday matinee screening and come out beaming with a newfound wish to retire to India so you can find yourself again or just enjoy an eternal turmeric-scented gap year.

In spite of all that, I’m apprehensive about the movie and, for the most part, it all comes back to the aversion to hotels I’ve already described. I fear that those two hours at the cinema are going to be characterised by loathing and a feeling that I was having the whole abysmal hotel notion inflicted on me, albeit encapsulated in bitesize popcorn motion picture format.

For a start, the film is already affronting me by turning the likes of Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy into the worst kind of person known to modern civilisation – namely British tourists. I’d be forced to empathise with semi-racist, inadaptable bumbling idiots that – as I’ve already stated – I hide from when I hit foreign shores. I even try to disguise the fact that I am one and pretend to be from somewhere else, like New Zealand, Mongolia or Yavin IV.

Even if I can get over this self-loathing and suspend my anti-Brit tourist wrath for a fish-out-of-water comedy flick, I don’t think I can shake off the ghosts of the horror hotels of movies past. The precedent is set and it might possibly be that all the atrocities and evils of the aforementioned films are waiting to be unleashed by Slumdog Hotelier on the travelling stars.

Just as holiday brochures lie to travel agency customers, perhaps the trailer for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is all a con and the film’s actually a remake of Takashi Miike’s surreal dark guesthouse melodrama The Happiness Of The Katakuris. Contrary to the audience’s expectations of a conventional feel-good movie, everyone is going to start dying and the whole thing reveals itself as a morbid musical farce with trippy stop-motion segments and spontaneous zombie dance numbers.

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It might be even more extreme and upsetting than that. I envision scenes where Tom Wilkinson is held ransom by drug dealing sadists, where Maggie Smith is ripped apart by explosive diarrhoea and where Bill Nighy is possessed by the spirits of the hotel and starts attacking Judi Dench with an axe.

All this, and no chance of a decent cup of tea. It might be best to go couchsurfing or stick with Safe House this weekend instead.

James’ previous column can be found here.

You can reach James on his Twitter feed here, see his film cartoons here and more sketches here.

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