By Richard Winters
My Rating: 8 out of 10
4-Word Review: Bizarre occurrences at lodge.
Inspector Glebsky (Uldis Pucitis) is summoned to a remote winter lodge known as the Dead Mountaineers due to a climber who fell to his death off a nearby cliff and whose faithful St. Bernard sleeps underneath a portrait of him in the hotel’s lobby. Glebsky was informed from the anonymous call of some unusual activity that was occurring at the place, but once he gets there no one, including the innkeeper Alex (Juri Jarvet), know what he’s talking about. After he meets the strange collection of guests he becomes even more suspicious. Then he’s handed a note stating that Hinkus (Mikk Mikiver), a man supposedly weakened by tuberculosis, is planning to commit murder. When one of the guests, Olaf (Tiit Harm), does turn-up dead, but Hinkus is later found tied-up in his bed, so he couldn’t have done it. A avalanche blocks off all outside roads trapping Glebsky and the guests in the building where more and more weird things begin to occur until the inspector can no longer trust his senses, or even his logic.
Some people ask; what makes a great movie? And the answer is that a good movie needs a unique and distinctive image that impresses the viewer right from the start and which they can take away with them once it’s over. This film has just that image with a bird’s eye view of the hotel that’s so remote, as it’s nestled in the snowy, mountain landscape, and so small when glimpsed from high up, that at first I thought it was a prop, but it’s a real building, which makes it all the more impressive. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such an isolated place, it doesn’t even seem to have roads leading into it. This shot alone, of which it goes back to it a few times, brilliantly sets the tone for the rest of the movie where everything is totally unique and like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
The fact that this was all shot in what was then the Soviet Union, in this case what is now Kazakhstan, makes it even more jaw-dropping as productions there didn’t receive the same type of budget as a studio driven Hollywood one and yet the visual design is impeccable. The inside of the place has a pronounced, surreal look with excellent shadowy lighting and the special effects, while sparse, come into strong play during the climactic surprise ending that like with the beginning leaves an equally lasting impression. The music by Sven Grunberg has a distinct futuristic tone that helps accentuate the outer worldly quality while the sun glistening off the bright white snow during the outdoor scenes makes it seem almost like another planet.
The story was written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky and based on their book of the same name. They’re better known for their novel ‘Roadside Picnic’, which was turned into the acclaimed Stalker directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Both brothers also wrote the screenplay and it pretty much stays faithful to the book though there’s a few missing characters and Glebsky’s motivation for going to the lodge is different. Here it was due a mysterious phone call while in the book it was for vacation. The plot at first gets played-up like it’s just another police/murder investigation complete with interviews with potential suspects and even Agatha Christie-like flashbacks showing what each guest was doing when the murder occurred, which had me getting bored as the movie starts out as something really different, so to have it devolve into the conventional murder mystery was disappointing, but by the second act this all changes and that’s when it gets really interesting.
The acting is solid and I enjoyed Pucitis in the lead, who despite having his voice dubbed, has the perfect chiseled features of a hardened police detective. My only complaint, and it’s a minor one and probably the only one in this potential cult classic that desperately needs more attention and a Blu-ray/dvd release, comes at the beginning during Glebsky’s voice-over narration where he speaks in the present about his time at the hotel and how during a ‘slow shift’ the events that he witnessed there comes back to haunt him. I found it hard to believe that he’d only think about this when there was nothing else to do, or in this case a ‘slow shift’, as I’d think it would be on his mind all the time to the extent that he may never be able to go back to police work again as the events would’ve been too traumatizing.
My Rating: 8 out of 10
Released: August 27, 1979
Runtime: 1 Hour 20 Minutes
Director: Grigori Kromanov