10 Surreal Hotel-Set Films


A Holocaust survivor, Lucia (Charlotte Rampling), resumes her sadomasochistic relationship with a former Nazi officer, Max (Dirk Bogarde), at a Vienna hotel in Liliana Cavani’s 1974 film The Night Porter. The setting becomes a link between past and present, reflected in several hypnotic flashbacks and Max’s new position as the hotel’s night porter. “A turning point in the film is the first surreal flashback at the opera. . . . Here, Cavani begins to dispense with realistic Holocaust representation to proceed with her own discourse on sexuality,” writes Nick Impey. “The earlier flashbacks are signified as depictions of either Max or Lucia’s subjective remembering. . . . As the narrative progresses, the ‘remembering stare’ virtually ceases to be applied, indicating that we are seeing something less representative of the real collective horror, and that Cavani is presenting her own imagining of the Holocaust in the flashbacks.” Criterion has given Cavani’s surreal film the Blu-ray treatment, set to release on December 9. We’ve gathered other movies that use the transient setting of the hotel room as a site of memory, dreams, and internal struggles.

Mystery Train

We recently counted Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train as having some of our favorite fantastical film interiors. The filmmaker brings an otherworldly quality to the anthology tale with a rich color palette that went against his usual black-and-white style. The Elvis train pilgrimage segment introduces the first offbeat characters of the film (including the legendary Screamin’ Jay Hawkins), who are connected to the other stories by the movie’s Memphis hotel setting and a spiritual narrative slant.

Four Rooms

Set in the fictional Hotel Mon Signor in Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Allison Anders, and Alexandre Rockwell directed an anthology that centers on a slapstick performance from Tim Roth’s bellhop named Ted. It’s his first night on the job, and his wild encounters with several hotel guests don’t disappoint. Witches, dead prostitutes, and severed pinky fingers abound in the absurd segments, partly inspired by the writings of Roald Dahl.

Barton Fink

No one delivers a bitterly dark comedic tone like the Coen brothers, which they dish up on a platter in 1991’s Barton Fink. John Turturro’s New York City playwright Barton Fink is hired to write a Hollywood film script, but winds up losing his mind at the Hotel Earle in California. Lack of sleep takes hold thanks to a pesky mosquito that seems to stalk the scribe at every turn. We’re drawn into Fink’s half dream state, which eventually ends in fire. As the hotel burns, we can almost feel Fink’s psyche slipping deeper into an abyss where he is free from the trappings of his own ego, but further inside himself nonetheless.

The Shining

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining singlehandedly defines the “surreal film set in a hotel” genre. Troubled writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is hired as the caretaker of the majestic Overlook Hotel. He moves there with his family for the winter, isolated from the world and surrounded by nothing but snow. But the Overlook has a dark past and Torrance’s already weak psyche starts to crumble when he encounters a few ghostly figures. The atmospheric setting is used to haunting effect — such as the labyrinthine hallways, which create a claustrophobic sense of being trapped within Jack’s mind.

Under the Rainbow

Set at the historic Culver Hotel in California — where most of the real-life cast from The Wizard of Oz stayed during the filming of the classic movie — 1981’s Under the Rainbow’s little people guests become swept up in an assassination plot against an Austrian duke. A wannabe actor played by Chevy Chase gets caught in the weird and manic goings-on. Later in the film, the hotel is renamed the Hotel Rainbow — where the only staff members include an elderly bellboy, evoking shades of David Lynch.


Wong Kar-wai’s version of Vertigo’s Jimmy Stewart is embodied in Tony Leung’s science fiction writer who chases the illusion of his lost true love in various impossible relationships with women. Room number 2046 — also the room number of the hotel room in Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (which also starred Leung and Maggie Cheung) — is the only absolute in Leung’s character’s confused mind. Kar-wai’s non-chronological narrative adds to the surreality of the lovesick story.

The Wicker Man

Welcome to the Green Man Inn, where your drunken hosts sing dirty ditties about “the landlord’s daughter” and the landlord’s daughter dances naked and tries to seduce you with a siren song through the walls of your room. Edward Woodward’s steadfast Sergeant Howie is a devout Christian, so he faces a moral struggle when he arrives at the pagan island of Summerisle. There, the residents worship the old gods, have orgies, and teach young children about sex by singing about the phallic maypole. His first night at the inn in Summerisle really tests his virtue when Britt Ekland’s Willow attempts to bed Howie and make him give in to lust.


Stay at the Bates Motel and you’ll wind up dead in a shower — or spied on by the creepy caretaker who has some serious mommy issues (because nice guys don’t wear their dead mum’s clothes and hide her corpse in the fruit cellar). Hitchcock adds further atmosphere to the voyeuristic scenes and “haunted house” setting with extreme close-ups, angles, and split-second editing

Death in Venice

This dreamlike adaptation of a Thomas Mann novel by Luchino Visconti is told from the perspective of avant-garde composer Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), who seeks refuge from his artistic and personal struggles at a Venetian seaside resort. But he finds no reprieve as he develops a troubling attraction to a young boy, Tadzio (Björn Andrésen), which allows him to escape into fantasy and ignore the terrifying things happening around him. The hotel and beach become increasingly empty as a mysterious plague spreads throughout the city, building a sense of dread and loneliness. Things bubble to the surface in a memorable scene where Von Aschenbach and the remaining hotel guests, including Tadzio, are serenaded by ghostly singers.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel’s elaborate narrative structure shifts between time periods and takes place in a castle-like mountainside resort in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka. Resembling a more lavish version of Wes Anderson’s usual dollhouse sets, the hotel becomes a stage for a series of screwball situations that feel oh so very Ernst Lubitsch, populated with Anderson-style whimsy and wonder.