APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: COUNTRY OF HOTELS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Julio Maria Martino

FEATURING: Adam Leese, Siobhan Hewlett, Matthew Leitch, Michael Lawrence, Charles Pike, Ben Shafik, Sabrina Faroldi, Mia Soteriou

PLOT: Strange fates await the tenants of room 508 of an unnamed hotel in Palatine, Illinois.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: This film’s unsettling aura lingers in the mind like stale cigarette smoke in a shabby hotel room. Three vignettes are showcased in the fifth-floor room of one of those Lynchian establishments found on the outskirts of Somewhere, USA. The staff are friendly enough, but beware the ever-morphing wall art.

COMMENTS: Duplicity, madness, and haziness linger beyond the portal in Country of Hotels. From within, above, and through its peephole, room 508 allows a glance into some very private, and pleasantly disconcerting, vignettes. The hotel’s staff provide not only room cleaning and story-framing services, they punctuate each morality tale with what I can best describe as fairy tale justice.

Each scenario shows the surface of what’s going on, but never what’s really going on. In the first, it’s obvious that Roger and Brenda shouldn’t be screwing each other: Roger’s married, and Brenda is his wife’s best friend. But who’s messing with the room electronics? How did Roger’s blabbermouth coworker also end up in this nowhere hotel that same day? And why can Roger watch himself making love? Subsequently, we see why Pauly’s on the verge of collapse: he’s always sent on stupid assignments because he’s smart, and he burns through calories at a medically alarming rate. But for what audience is he recording his addled videos? What voice is tormenting him nightly via the air-conditioning duct? And why is he so itchy? And finally, Derek is drunk as hell after a rock show, awaiting Brenda; Vic the photographer, replete with bolo tie and comb-over, and greased in lies and grievance, comes asking after her. But how long has Derek been here? What’s Vic’s actual relationship with Brenda? And how did that stuffed animal panda travel from the hotel room into the TV broadcast?

Of the many questions that pop up, the most mysterious—and most satisfying—is, what is up with that painting? It hangs on the wall, innocuous. Another “warehouse print,” as Pauly bitches to his laptop camera. It changes subtly after each visitor’s departure, moving the gravedigging figure that looks remarkably similar to Sammy, the hotel handyman. He’s an immigrant with an unspecified accent, and is perhaps related to the unflappable hostess who commands the lobby; the Stetson-topped patriarch who never rises from his wheelchair; and the flinchingly obsequious chamber maid. Their relationship with room 508 is one of understanding if not comprehension; they have a notion of its doings, but appear to be little more than passive facilitators of its nebulous whims.

Country of Hotels nails the look as well as the stories, a look ripped from over half a century ago—further back, if you include the room’s pastoral artwork. Disorienting geometry glazes 508’s walls with headache-inducing tessellation. When the bulbs aren’t flickering, the lights are always too bright. And the muted palette pairs nicely with the languidly loping score, transmuting a potentially sing-song tedium into an icky sub-natural space like you might find in a latter-day Hotel Earle. This is an uncomfortable movie peopled by sorry examples of humanity and supported by a stolid band of genial foreigners. The staff provide the film’s comic relief, pathos, and its most important moral: we are all just guests here, and it would do us well to bear that in mind.

Country of Hotels is currently on the festival circuit and will be showing up next at the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival (May 7-15, exact date of screening not known at time of publication). We’ll keep you advised of future availability. Also see our interview with director Julio Maria Martino and writer David Hauptschein.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Anyone who associates low-budget horror purely with cheap slasher films will be profoundly surprised by how ambitious and weird Country of Hotels is. It’s the work of people who are using their below-the-radar status to take serious chances. It also punches above its weight technically, thanks to Slocovich’s slick, moody cinematography and a fabulous score by Christos Fanaras, which ably carries the movie through its slower patches.”–Graham Williamson, Horrified (festival review)

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