There was a time when aliens weren’t cult.
Before the greatest show on earth (The X-Files), aliens were a personal invasion of mortal safety. They signified everything wrong with the universe we inhabited and implicated a mortal terror of the unknown we barely perceived as anything other than an “it’s fine, we’ll be fine” sipped through denied lips. As metaphors, sure, as physical entities, no fucking thanks.
Estonian folklore leans a lot into the idea of host-taking and shapeshifting. The Kratt for instance, is a creature borne of hay and tools, brought to life by blood to work for its master. A Sentient used to dig, run chores, exist as a slave. Imitating human life, but being only a homunculus to the will of whoever would deal with the devil to will it into existence. Pitchforks and sinew, trowels and skulls, bread and ladder. A hollow being desperate to work, pretending its existence isn’t an abomination of magic, thirsty for work or else it would turn on its owner. For some, the Kratt was a helper, turned into a nightmare. Given tasks so dangerous that the owner would actively seek to give it work that would knowingly kill it to save themselves the agony of its hand in death. A bite too much of Satan’s hand.
Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (“Hukkunud Alpinisti” hotell, Grigori Kromanov, 1979) leans hard into its native folklore stories of host-taking but gives it a newly found sci-fi bent, mimicking Soviet-era ideas of internal invasion, gender non-conformity and country (if not world) changing ideas of appropriation and accidental exposure to life beyond comprehension.
In the snow-capped high-altitude nowheresville of mountainous Europe, Inspector Glebsky (Uldis Pūcītis) is anonymously called in to investigate a murder pertaining to a mountaineer and his dog. His location is that of a gorgeously nestled wooden hotel on what feels like the crown of earth and its inhabitants. They’re odd, one sentence sideways, unhelpful and too helpful. As labyrinthine as the hotel itself, which is itself questionable in its intent. An oblique, neo-noir Bauhaus building left to percolate and evolve on its own, becoming puzzling and obsidian. An impenetrable tableau for a mystery that the physical world can’t comprehend: aliens exist.
As an audience, we’re given the exact same amount of work that the inspector is given but with extra detail once he’s left the room. Making us more equipped to exact ourselves on what’s happening but also, somehow, feeling even more confused with what’s happening and who these people are. Why were we shown that extra eyeline? Who is whispering? What is GOING on in these mountains?
The soviet “alien” and “robots” idea is less hammy western ideals of spooky wee guys from beyond but more ideas of assimilation and folklore-bred notions of humans not as humans. Robots aren’t mechanic techno-menaces but rather fleshy familiar. The aliens are shapeshifters making us feel accidentally comfortable while they find safe passage. Their gender and sexuality are fluid, almost androgynous, to the point that their misunderstanding of the concept of biology and sexuality are critiquing our own confusingly rigid viewpoints on both.
In the hotel, it feels like tenants are both arguing with each other and harmoniously disrupting your work at decoding, so that when the reveal hits, you feel astounded at its meaning. Especially with how the film chooses to frame its core end message: if aliens exist on earth, what would it mean to the integrity of human life? And if you kill one, what kind of corruption would that cause to the human soul knowing you killed possibly the greatest discovery of Man’s existence? Is it duty of fear?
It’s extremely hard to spoil Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel, because almost everything in its filmmaking relies on your experience of its atmosphere and pace. Glacial, soothing, weird, quixotic. The first time I ever watched it, I knew it was my favourite foreign film. How could I not? Written by the legendary sci-fi math-brains Strugatsky brothers who (in the same year) had their novel Roadside Picnic turned into cult classic Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky and later Hard To Be A God adapted twice into messianic epics, Grigori Kromanov-directed Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel has their heady, huge themes built into it, but it’s minimalistic and restrained. Enjoying every second, it teases you into each gentle unzip. Don’t ask, don’t tell, just watch.
There’s a weird essence about the whole thing that feels like it was a sci-fi noir film made for aliens BY aliens and their secret existence on Earth, but we just accidentally found it. A true, bonafide classic.
Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel screens in association with The Reptile House at Matchbox Cineclub’s Weird Weekend on Sunday, 01/09/2019 at CCA, Glasgow
The Reptile House is a cult movie/music/art/weerd/oddball zine full of articles, film comparisons, poems, short stories and other lost and found miscellaneous junk. Everyone is welcome, because everyone belongs. Its print it out on shitty work printers at 6am when no one is in because I want it to be affordable for everyone! Any money made goes directly to local charities. Please do not tap the glass.
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