There’s something inherently weird about hotels. After all, they are a temporary domicile, a place you call home for a limited time, and you share the experience with dozens of other people you will never know. (I’ve stayed on more than one occasion at a chain dubbing itself “Home 2,” like it’s the sequel to the much-loved original.) It might explain why we see so many films about them on this site, from hotels that house transient mental patients to hotels stored in the private parts of ancient vampires to hotels where couples meet again and again to decrepit hotels to hotels on the edge of the apocalypse and beyond. So maybe it shouldn’t be too surprising to find two different films in our suggestion box that are content to leave the title at Hotel. Arguably, that alone should tell you it’s about to get strange up in here.
Notably, this pair of films offers us differing points of view: one largely concerning the guests, the other centered on a member of the staff.
DIRECTED BY: Mike Figgis
FEATURING: Saffron Burrows,, , , , , Burt Reynolds, , David Schwimmer, Mark Strong
PLOT: A film company attempts to shoot a guerilla-style version of “The Duchess of Malfi” while based in a hotel that practices cannibalistic vampirism.
COMMENTS: This hotel variant is a directorial showcase. Figgis indulges all the techniques at his disposal: handheld cameras shooting hyper-saturated video, improvised dialogue, and the same quad-split screen storytelling that he indulged in Timecode. Some have suggested (and a line of dialogue insinuates) that he’s actually playing with Dogme 95 techniques, although his production violates most of Dogme’s rules. What he really seems to be doing is utilizing the same let’s-film-and-see-what-happens philosophy that he’s depicting. So it’s improvised. Real. Which is potentially interesting, especially when his actors are up to the challenge. But it can be equally deadening if they’re not. Sometimes there’s a payoff, like Burt Reynolds’ inexplicable turn as the director of a flamenco troupe, yes-anding his way through a scenario that would not seem to call for him at all. But you’re as likely to get a scene like Salma Hayek and Lucy Liu screaming at each other. Is that really the most interesting thing they could think of to do? It’s weak improv, which makes it weak cinema.
The all-star cast is a huge part of the appeal. It ends up playing like one of those live theatrical experiences where you get a different experience based upon which actors you choose to follow. The real-world examples of this can result in something classy or trashy, and much the same is true here. Consider Rhys Ifans’ gleefully confident turn as a power-mad director, a performance which borders on parody but is the liveliest thing in the film, until he is curiously sidelined before the halfway mark. His counterpoint is David Schwimmer’s put-upon screenwriter, a delicately mannered act that is consistently undercut by the fact that every time he opens his mouth, he is inescapably David Schwimmer. Just once, the two actors hit upon a kind of mutual electricity, as they literally bark at each other. And that’s a lot of the experience of Hotel. Sometimes, everything lines up and you get alchemy. But for much of the film, you get a lot of flashy knives and singing chefs and dancing waiters, and what you’re really waiting for is the meal.
It’s hard to understand what Figgis is going for with the additional layer of a hotel staff that is steadily – and not very clandestinely, if we’re being honest – chowing down on the guests. There’s a fundamental violence at the heart of the movie, exemplified by the film company’s attempt to adapt John Webster’s legendarily violent revenge tale. (The 17th-century dialogue is frequently more compelling than what the 21st-century cast is coming up with on the fly, and the actors’ enthusiasm demonstrates how much power they can infuse it with.) But there’s little rhyme or reason to who ends up on the chopping block. Why are some people served up as punishment while others (like John Malkovich’s guileless Scandinavian tourist) are mere lambs to the slaughter? Figgis’ Hotel is confident and quixotic, but it never really gets to being more than its attitude.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
(This movie was nominated for review by Baal, who marveled “*That* film is off the hook…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
DIRECTED BY: Jessica Hausner
FEATURING: Franziska Weisz, Birgit Minichmayr, Marlene Streeruwitz, Peter Strauß, Christopher Schärf
PLOT: A young woman takes a job at a local hotel, taking over the work of another woman who has mysteriously gone missing, and finds her surroundings unsettling.
COMMENTS: Comparatively, Hausner’s Hotel is a much simpler affair, rooted, as it is in mood. This hotel is an immediately creepy place. We begin with new employee Irene (Weisz) receiving a tour of the basement. It feels practically deserted, and you immediately get that feeling you get when you’re alone in a big public place that would typically be crowded.
Naturally, trouble is on the horizon. The dark woods that surround the hotel are haunted by a martyred woman, and a whole group of hikers disappeared on this spot only a few decades before. Or so says the plaque. (Remember: Always read the plaque.) Irene, with her innocent appearance and prominent crucifix pendant (the disappearance of which augurs poorly for her fate), looks just like the kind of girl who gets a hatchet to the chest in a horror movie. And Hausner keeps upping the ante with pointed references: a voyeuristic shower scene. A virginal white nightgown. A pair of blood-red eyeglasses left behind by her lost predecessor, which she wears to feel naughty. A haunted doll. An old photo of past staff members that hints at the most famous creepy hotel in movie history. The tropes pile up along with your certainty that this young lady is very much doomed.
This Hotel is a slow burn. Absolutely no one seems to be having a good time; not the guests, not the locals, and definitely not the staff, even on their off-hours. With no music score (except for the diegetic Krautrock dance tunes, one of which has the hilariously on-the-nose chorus, “This music is a sin”), the whole thing is propelled by a host of off-putting noises and Weisz’s increasing urge to get the hell out of there. Unfortunately, the pervading sense of foreboding removes any degree of suspense. It’s not a question of if doom will come but when. In that sense, it’s a distant European cousin to The Blair Witch Project. We get the apprehensive tone and piecemeal mythology. Irene is certainly not as off-putting as Witch Project’s central trio, but with so little to her other than her difficulty fitting in and her growing discomfort, the trouble which awaits her doesn’t hit with much power. She’s locked into her fate; we’re just waiting for the end of the line.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“[I] jotted down the antecedents from whom Hausner had so blatantly and snobbily ‘borrowed’ her horror-movie concomitants – David Lynch (Twin Peaks, Lost Highway), Roman Polanski (Repulsion, The Tenant), Stanley Kubrick (The Shining)…
“This is a quiet film – and a very deliberately slow one – where the question is not ‘when does it show its hand?’ but rather ‘does it show its hand at all? Does it have hands? What is a hand?’… This is a haunting film about labor, obedience, the invisible presence of passive-aggressiveness as a form of violence, and that odd, intangible spirit of being aware that other people long gone once worked where you now work – that intangible presence of workplace ghosts.” – Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Fangoria
Whether it be the unwitting demise of Malkovich’s Swedish tourist or Irene’s long march toward the inevitable, both of these cinematic lodges carry with them the scent of ill fate. Something to think about the next time you check into that charming Italian pensione or that sprawling Florida resort. Should you trust the proprietors? Because there’s a good chance your fellow guests do not.