Scripter-helmer Wayne Chesler gets darkly comic mileage out of the juncture of tabloid TV, a remote (possibly haunted) locale and its cordial but deluded caretaker in "The Hotel Manor Inn." First release from Troma's more wholesome new distribution arm, 50th Street Films, is a slightly uneven but honorable low-budgeter with a winning perf from stage and screen vet John Randolph that's tailor-made for midnight shows.

Scripter-helmer Wayne Chesler gets darkly comic mileage out of the juncture of tabloid TV, a remote (possibly haunted) locale and its cordial but deluded caretaker in “The Hotel Manor Inn.” First release from Troma’s more wholesome new distribution arm, 50th Street Films, is a slightly uneven but honorable low-budgeter with a winning perf from stage and screen vet John Randolph that’s tailor-made for midnight shows. Pic opens theatrically in New York in the fall.

Creepy and offbeat enough to sustain interest without devolving into gratuitous violence or gore, this low-key horror pic is at least as suspenseful as the remake of “Diabolique,” although the body count is higher. “Inn” was the first film in New York to benefit from SAG’s agreement that allows low-low-budget indies to honor a union contract.

Nolan (Sam Trammell), the fresh-faced young intern at histrionic network tabloid show “A Smoking Gun,” is dispatched to a remote island off the south shore of Massachusetts to do research on a possible lead. A woman named Lucille has been pestering the program with letters claiming that two people were murdered at the Atlantic Island Hotel where she lives most of the year.

Nolan is the lone passenger on the creaky ferry from the mainland, arriving at the hotel on a dark and stormy night. Caretaker Gus (Randolph) and gnomelike local postman Charlie assure Nolan he’s wasting his time, because Lucille isn’t there and has an unreliable, overactive imagination when she is.

Viewers learn that Lucille is there and has been telling the truth: She and Gus killed the hotel’s owners, and Lucille has her heart set on being caught live on “A Smoking Gun,” whose imperious jerk of a host, Brian Armor (Burke Moses, in an entertaining turn) is her idol. She even envisions Rod Steiger playing Gus in the TV movie of their crime.

Gus, who just wants to run the hotel and restore it to its former glory, is forced to kill Lucille. Soon after, he has no choice but to dispatch mild-mannered Charlie. The slightly macabre comedy of errors continues as Gus tries to dispose of the bodies while Nolan, convinced that he’s been sent on a wild goose chase, misses every telltale clue in his path and takes up with a comely local lass.

Black humor stems from matter-of-fact juxtaposition of down-home island civilities with Gus’ cracked, increasingly blatant behavior. Randolph exudes crusty greatness and gusto as Gus, and Trammell, a guileless variation on the young Rob Lowe, sustains Nolan’s clean-cut naivete, whatever the evidence.

Decor is tchotchke-filled and evocative. Location lensing on Long Island achieves a distinct sense of place and fares much better than the brief scenes at the dinky TV station. Score ranges from twang guitar to yodeling solos.

The Hotel Manor Inn

Production

A 50th Street Films release of a Manor Films production. Produced by Wayne Chesler. Executive producers, Robert Gillings, Damon Testaverde. Directed, written by Wayne Chesler.

Crew

Camera (color), Michael McCurry; editors, Chesler, McCurry; music, Alan Schwartz; production design, Pilar Turner; costume design, Marianne Powell-Parker; sound, Derek Felska, Roy B. Yokelson; associate producers, McCurry, Franny Baldwin; assistant director, George Obergfoll. Reviewed at Republique theater, Paris, July 4, 1996. (In French-American Film Workshop, Avignon -- competing.) Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Gus - John Randolph
Nolan - Sam Trammell
Brian Armor - Burke Moses
Kathy - Jennifer Corby
With: Fred Norris, Richard Bright, William Preston, Jessica Dublin, Lawrence Vincent, Herschel Sparber, Jack William Scott, Jane Strauss, Steve Roberts.
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