Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Lesorub (1985)

... aka: Лесоруб
... aka: Lumberjack
... aka: Woodcutter

Directed by:
Evgeniy Yufit

The director's second short following his 3-minute-long WEREWOLF ORDERLIES (1984), this was an early entry in the Soviet Necrorealism / Parallel Cinema underground movement, which was basically started as a means to revolt against oppressive state control over their film industry, which included not just film production but also distribution.

The two-and-a-half minute intro features a TV reporter (played by the director himself) entering a small room that's decorated in creepy fashion with pictures of corpses, crime scene photos and skulls adorning the walls, hanging dolls, a stabbed teddy bear and other such ghoulery. He addresses the camera directly and starts talking but we don't hear anything because he doesn't have his microphone hooked up. Once he plugs it in, the camera suddenly cuts away. Even though nothing has really happened up to this point, this is already (visually) an improvement over Yusif's first short in that it's filmed and lit somewhat better and features actual art direction so at least it has that much going for it. This is still primitive stuff on the technical scale though... and the film seems to become even more primitive the further along it goes. So why the sudden change in quality? Well, the print of the original film currently sitting in archive runs 6 minutes while the one I viewed runs over 8, which means this better-shot opening sequence must have been grafted on at a later stage.

We meet a nameless man who is having a hard time walking down an icy road. He's one of many who have a zombie-like lurch to their gait. The basic task of walking becomes even more difficult when a mob dressed in back run by, push him down, tie a rope to his leg and start dragging him. We then go to an apartment building where a man tosses a dummy off a balcony. The title card informs us that despite the dummy's high fall, it "continued to function well." The dummy is then hung from a tree, put on train tracks and then saved from being run over but "dies" soon after anyway. The body is buried in the snow.

A "pseudo-tourist loser" on an excursion in the woods stumbles onto the body and the mob of men come and start beating him up. And then beat each other up. And then beat up a guy carrying a dead body on his back who in turn is beating up another guy with a briefcase who looks like he's about to picnic in the snow. We get brief flashes of a crazy tied-up man, a guy in drag dancing and some other such nonsense before learning that the "pseudo-tourist" is actually a "werewolf double." The real tourist has devoted his life to being a woodcutter. He stumbles around, knocks down some trees and collapses from exhaustion. Just another day for the working class. The mob then start flailing in the snow, punch and kick each other and hit each other with sticks while stock footage people release doves, point and cheer.

Cut between the frantic action are various stills and brief clips from films, shots of bugs eating a dead lizard, slaughtered pigs, an angry bear and more. It's all a deep and profound statement about... uh... well, scratch that... This is really just filmed anarchy against Soviet ideology, with people running amok engaged in poorly-choreographed depictions of suicide, murder and slapstick brawling accompanied by a tuneless song. The title cards somehow make it even less coherent than it otherwise would be, which is probably the point.

I always have a difficult time rating stuff like this. It has a certain historical significance and provokes some interest on that front. However, as much as I fully respect what these folks were doing, where they were doing it and why they were doing it, I appreciate what this symbolizes much more than the execution of the film itself.


Monday, September 28, 2020

Sanitary-oborotni (1984)

... aka: Санитары-оборотни
... aka: Werewolf Orderlies

Directed by:
Evgeniy Yufit

Due to strict censorship in Soviet cinema at the hands of the state-controlled film production and distribution department Goskino (USSR State Committee for Cinematography), a group of anarchists and provocateurs arose in the early 80s who set out to cause a ruckus. This group initially started out as a secret club of sorts who'd congregate in the woods. They eventually got their hands on some primitive film equipment and began making their own silent shorts, which intentionally set out to do things, and show things, that the major studios wouldn't. And thus "Necrorealism" was born.

These shorts were crudely-made, chaotic, absurdist, filmed without dialogue (music was sometimes added later) and frequently improvised. Most of them were obsessed with death, decomposition, bodily invasion / transformation and the concept of empty existence; a society filled with people who are perhaps technically alive but more akin to zombies i.e. simultaneously living and dead. Many offered up images of fighting, murder, cruelty, suicide, cannibalism, sadism and sexual deviance as shock tactics. And since the government controlled the cinemas and, by proxy, the content of films being show in them, these shorts were only screened on the underground circuit. Yufit (sometimes Evgenii Iufit), a student at a technical college at the time, became the leader of this movement and even formed his own independent studio called Mzhalala Film, which was also the countries first independent studio, to work on these films.

Werewolf Orderlies was their inaugural effort. It runs just 3 minutes, is black-and-white, was ineptly shot on extremely scratchy (I think) 8mm, looks more like it was made in the 1910s than the 1980s and was more-or-less just improvised right there on the spot.

A sailor carrying a hacksaw exits a train, walks across some tracks and heads out into the woods. A bunch of men, only a few of which are actually dressed like orderlies, follow him. Other men are around aimlessly and frantically digging through the snow with shovels. The sailor makes a fire in front of a tree, climbs up it and then jumps into a blanket held by the orderlies. They drag him into the middle of a field and he's killed after being beaten with shovels and having a tree branch thrown on top of him. We then see shots of a battleship and waves, probably taken from some war / propaganda film. There are no werewolves. The end.

What this started and why this even exists in the first place are both much more interesting topics to ponder than actually sitting through this silly no budget home movie. I'm assuming the stick-it-to-the-status-quo aspect comes from seeing a military man being senselessly killed, which, in a way, is a sort of anti-propaganda I guess. Yufit made a number of these shorts in the 80s before graduating to features like Daddy, Father Frost Is Dead (1991) and Silver Heads (1999) in the 90s. He passed away in 2016. His shorts now play at film festivals and are screened at colleges and such, plus they're on Youtube if you're interested.


Sunday, September 27, 2020

'Hukkunud Alpinisti' hotell (1979)

... aka: Отель 'У погибшего альпиниста'
... aka: Dead Mountaineer's Hotel
... aka: Hotel a Halott Alpinistához (Hotel for the Dead Climber)
... aka: Hotel "At a Lost Climber," The
... aka: Hotel of the Deceased Climber
... aka: Otel u pogibshego alpinista

Directed by:
Grigori Kromanov

Police inspector Peter Glebsky (Uldis Pūcītis) receives a phone call asking him to come to a very secluded ski lodge called the "The Dead Mountaineer's Hotel," which gets its name from a unnamed climber who was caught in an avalanche and carried 500 meters to his death there. The man's likeness is even found in the hotel lobby highlighted with neon as soon as you enter. While that sounds a little bit morbid and perhaps doesn't make this appear to be the ideal vacation retreat, it makes up for it with booze, billiards, a mini-nightclub and the scenery. Upon arrival, Glebsky is greeted by Alex Snewahr (Jüri Järvet), who owns the hotel and all of the surrounding land, including the mountains. Only there's a problem: Alex claims he didn't call the police. Sensing it was a prank, a false alarm or perhaps some kind of mistake made by one of the guests staying there, Glebsky calls up his superior and informs him that he'll be back the following day. After all, it's a treacherous and very dangerous drive through the snowy, foggy mountains to get there and certainly not one you want to attempt in the evening. Glebsky decides to stay the night. "Lell," Alex's Saint Bernard, is even kind enough to get his luggage and show him to his room.

Glebsky briefly meets the other six guests. There's Hinckus (Mikk Mikiver), a gravelly-voiced tuberculosis patient sent there by his doctor for some fresh air. The eccentric Simon Simonet (Lembit Peterson) first claims to be "commander of the cyber-forces" but then confesses to actually being a government physicist working on the top secret "Midas Project." He's come there to climb but since there's too much snow to do that, he opts to climb the walls instead. Alex's distant relative Brun (Nijole Ozelyte), who's basically just there loafing and smoking weed, is there, along with Olaf (Tiit Härm), the only other guy there under the age of 40. And then there's the attractive and glamorous, though very peculiar-acting Mrs. Moses (Irena Kriauzaite), who's married to the significantly older Mr. Moses (Karlis Sebris). Mr. Moses claims to be some kind of "traveling businessman" and just kind of sits back and watches as his wife flirts with anything in pants.

One of the guests drops an anonymous note on the floor addressed to Glebsky stating that Hinckus is actually a dangerous gangster and homicidal maniac known as "Owl" who's hiding out here and is plotting to murder somebody. Before the inspector can even confront him over the validity of those claims, there's an avalanche. Both the power and the phones lines are knocked out and it will take at least a week for someone to dig out the roads leading there. Sounds like the perfect time for a murder or two, doesn't it?

Olaf is soon found dead in his room; his arm outstretched toward a briefcase and his head rather unnaturally twisted around almost completely backwards. Coinciding with the discovery of the body is the arrival of a mysterious man who just sort of turns up there out of the blue claiming to be a friend of Olaf's. He - Luarvik (Sulev Luik) - proves to be every bit as strange as the other guests when he gains consciousness, claiming that while he knows Olaf he doesn't know what he looks like. He seems to be after something in his suitcase, which the inspector has hidden, and is also pallid, physically weak and needs to sleep a lot.

Though Hinckus would be high up on the suspect list, he is found knocked out and tied up to a bed. Simon is then found delirious and claiming he found (and tried to get romantic with) Mrs. Moses' corpse, though she is soon found still alive. Brun seems curiously unperturbed by the murder of Olaf and even jokes around about it. A strange contraption is found among Olaf's belongings that Simon hypothesizes is either from the military or outer space. And Alex keeps casually bringing up things like aliens and zombies ("the third state of living organisms"). Just what exactly is going on?

Can't really go into too much further detail as not to spoil the ending / resolution (fyi, don't look at my tags either!), only I'll say that it may or may not involve something supernatural / otherworldly and it's something so out there that the inspector (who narrates the proceedings; sometimes unnecessarily) hasn't told a soul about it even years after the fact. Gee, I'm not a lot of help, am I?

This is another of those movies that's not really within just one genre as there are elements of mystery / suspense, crime, science fiction, surrealism and horror all weaved in plus lots of flashbacks, nightmares, hallucinations and oddball characters and even some bizarrely-placed b/w newsreel footage showing real people falling to their deaths trying to escape from a burning high rise apartment building. While it's well-made, handsomely-shot and keeps you guessing, it's at its best as a visual piece and uses its locations exceptionally well. The sense of isolation is superbly pulled off thanks to lots of long shots of the hotel. There are loads of lens flares and beautiful shots of the sun peaking out from behind the mountains. The art direction on the hotel interior, which is usually dark but with shots of color and flickering light (thanks to them having to switch over to the generator), is also excellent. And the mood is perfectly set by Sven Grünberg's eerie synth score.

Based on the 1970 novel Otel "U pogibshego alpinista" by siblings Arkadi Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky. The brothers, who will forever be best known for writing Andrei Tarkovsky's highly acclaimed Stalker (1979), also adapted this for the screen. There was a 2009 DVD release from Ruscico (given the awkward title of The Hotel "At a Lost Climber") that includes English subtitles. The novel itself was finally made available in English in 2015 thanks to Melville House and is titled The Dead Mountaineer's Inn.

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