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 but it might as well have been). 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, and Busey is obviously the first one they finger. 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 trying to save Vince's life.
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 director James Mangold ('Walk the Line', 'Cop Land') film is like a horror/thriller 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 (Watching it a second time with hindsight, it's easier to spot, though). 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 characters are stock, but I get so sick of the teen/20ish horror characters that a film like this with characters of varying ages and types really appeals to me. The cast is eclectic, and whilst some of the actors have narrow range, pretty much everyone is well-cast here (Alfred Molina is wasted, though), even Clea Duvall, though there's a limit to how much of her ugly crying I can take. I don't really get Amanda Peet, she's a step up from Carmen Electra and Yasmine Bleeth in the acting stakes, but that's about it. John C. McGinley shows his versatility by playing it meek and panicky, instead of being the cynical tough guy he is most often seen playing (on 'Scrubs' especially). Jake Busey is hilariously cast as a serial killer, for some reason he just plain makes me smile when on screen.
The best work is done by John Cusack, John Hawkes, Pruitt Taylor Vince, and Ray Liotta, though Rebecca DeMornay is certainly well-cast as a selfish beeyatch. Cusack is Cusack, and provides a very relatable lead character. 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 is right up his alley.
The combination of mystery, excellent twist, eclectic cast, and a genuine filmmaker make this a better than average horror film to say the least.