Monday, August 8, 2011

Sci-Fried Theater: DEAD MOUNTAINEER'S HOTEL (1979)

The Russian’s have a rich history of cerebral literature. Literature that has influenced some of the greatest writers in modern history and provoked the thoughts of Nobel Prize winners and artists. I've never read any of them. I’ve never read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, or Chekhov and I’ve also never read anything by 20th Century science fiction writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Because of this I will not be forced to bitch, piss and moan about how this is missing, that got changed and how film doesn't translate the rich narrative prose. So maybe it's all for the better. Wait! No, see, I deliberately haven't read the books so that I can enjoy the movies. Yeah, that's it!

Based on the 1970 novel of the same title (also published under the title “Inspector Glebsky's Puzzle”) and scripted by the Strugatsky brothers themselves, DEAD MOUNTAINEER’S HOTEL is not so much the story as the telling. But the story is a pretty engaging one.

Set in the not too distant future, police Inspector Glebsky is summoned to a remote alpine hotel after an anonymous call to the precinct reports a death at the lodge. When he arrives, the rather cryptic proprietor Snewahr tells him there has been no such disturbance. The inspector doesn’t seem to be terribly bothered by this as it affords him a chance to spend the night and sample the Edelweiss (this seems to be referring to a wine in the film). The hotel itself is designed with primary colored fluorescent lights, mirrors, and a whole lot of darkness. The first thing visitors are greeted with upon arriving is an illustration of the somber face of the dead mountaineer whom the hotel was named after, complete with a red neon halo above his head. The whole film has a strange future-noir atmosphere that echoes both BLADE RUNNER and SUSPIRIA in many ways.

Being a police inspector, even though nothing is apparently wrong, Glebsky wanders the hotel and under the guise of amiable chat, interviews the strange guests. There is the ill-tempered Hinckus, who wears a huge fur coat and says that he is here because of tuberculosis; the sketchy physicist Simonet, who because of the amount of snow on the mountains, literally is climbing the walls; the travelling salesman Mr. Moses (of whom Snewahr cryptically says “I don’t know where he’s travelling to. The road ends here; the only way is back.”) and Mrs. Moses, who’s eyes are too wide and smile too tight; also Olaf and Brun, two young lovers who are just a little bit too smug and Olaf is just a bit too good at billiards.

After a formal dinner which includes candelabra and passing a soup tureen, the guests head to the disco to bust some futuristic moves on the dance floor. Glebsky sips wine while contemplating their behavior. Later he finds someone has slipped a note into his pocket declaring Hinckus to be a contract killer for the mob and that he will kill someone that evening. Realizing that Hinckus was not at dinner, Glebsky runs to the roof and sees Hinckus’ coat, but instead of containing Hinckus, it contains a snow man. The clues are mounting up, but there has been no crime.

In his search for Hinckus, Glebsky discovers Olaf dead, contorted into an unnatural position and reaching for his briefcase. Now is when Agatha Christy clearly missed the announcement and decided to take the brown acid. To give away any more of the plot would be an injustice and if you are going to watch this film, you really shouldn't read anything about it first. Yes, it's a little late now, but make this the last thing you read. Seriously.

Interestingly this film shares themes that are common with Phillip K. Dick’s work; strange people with strange names and a lone man grappling with his perception of reality and what it means to be human. The Strugatsky brothers clearly were either inspired by his work or were thinking along the same lines. The film itself draws some fascinating parallels with BLADE RUNNER (1982), both plot wise and in aesthetics. The languid pace, moody visuals and the retro-future trappings, accompanied by Sven Grünberg’s eerie electronic score, that sounds just a bit too much like Vangelis, is complimented by a stonefaced inspector who’s caliginous narration is actually rather reminiscent of the tacked on narration from the original theatrical version of BLADE RUNNER. You could stretch it even further by inviting comparison of Hinckus' look to that of Roy Batty. This comparison brings the influence back full circle and provides another level on which to enjoy this film.

There are those that have read the book, and they complain that the film leaves out entire characters and chunks of plot. As much as I hate to unavoidable comparison of books to movies, truth be told, it’s pretty easy to see how a novel would have contained much more information, particularly since the characters have a penchant for weird, enigmatic conversation. For instance, in one scene Snewahr talks to the inspector about an African ritual that brings a person back from the dead, and that this “zombie” could, in fact, be a third state of being for human life. I suspect that this probably went on much longer in the book and was tied into other scenes. There are lots of moments like this, the brief case being another example. In the film, our McGuffin is a briefcase that, much like the trunk of the Chevy Malibu in REPO MAN (1984), the audience never really sees what is inside. Either way, there is plenty of weird, moody atmosphere and strange moments in the film, keeping it completely captivating for its admittedly scant running time of 80 minutes. Scenes such as the one where the inspector goes back to his room and watches a TV, which is showing nothing but a man plummeting out of a building, repeatedly from several different angles, add to the surreality of the already strange proceedings. The only place I can fault the filmmakers is director Grigori Kromanov’s clumsy use of the zoom lens, occasionally used to ruin incredible camera set-ups, such as a shot of the setting sun cutting through a tree on a spectacular alpine vista. Jess Franco would have been proud.

At the very least, DEAD MOUNTAINEER’S HOTEL is a very interesting sidebar for Philip K. Dick fans, at the most it is a fascinating and richly atmospheric, genre-blending work, something of a flawed masterpiece, that may even get me to read some Russian literature after all.

On an interesting side note, a Russian software developer spent the better part of a decade working on a point-and-click PC game based on the novel. Originally slated for release in 2004, it was pushed back year by year until 2009. In spite of some great looking previews and great press, the game has never been released outside of Russia and Germany, as far as I have been able to determine. Part of that problem stems from the English version of the game being sold to Lighthouse Interactive for distribution in North America and Europe. Lighthouse was purchased in 2008 by the Canadian company Silverbirch who went into bankrupcy in 2009 and shut down completely. While a few assets were sold off, "The Dead Mountaineer Hotel" is still MIA in spite of being developed simultaneously in multiple languages, including English. Despite of the protagonist being transformed into a youthful hipster, the game looks quite detailed, though lacking the neon-gothic atmosphere of the movie, and boasted five different endings based on player choices made during the game.

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