Country of Hotels
In his feature film début, London-based director Julio Maria Martino invites us to stay in Room 508. Graham Williamson reviews Country of Hotels for Horrified...
The first film directed by Julio Maria Martino, Country of Hotels might wear its influences on its sleeve, but they aren’t half interesting influences. The most immediately apparent one is The Shining (US, Stanley Kubrick, 1980), with its hotel setting, the geometric pattern on the walls and a moment where an apparently real person from the present suddenly turns up in an old picture on the hotel walls. (That moment, which might be the closest David Hauptschein’s script gets to being simply derivative, is rescued by aesthetics: put plainly, the picture is really, really creepy.)
Yet in some ways, this is a red herring. Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick’s haunted house was a unique, distinctive one, but it was still a haunted house. The ominous presence in Room 508 here is harder to classify. Before we run down the many things Country of Hotels might be pretending to be, or might almost be, it’s worth delineating what it is.
A British production, Country of Hotels is set in an American hotel. When and where is left deliberately vague; it has a slight halo of the recent past, if only because you can smoke in some of the rooms (and nobody vapes). The film is divided into separate stories but it’s not always easy to say where one begins and the other ends. This is partly because characters from one sometimes cross into another, partly because the edges of each story are blurred by collages of the various entertainment options available on the hotel’s TV.
Even before the more violent or supernatural action starts, you have to pity any traveller who turns to these to alleviate their loneliness. It’s all cheap, argumentative talk shows, joyless soft porn and isolated shots of some very Blair Witchy woods. The film also repeatedly cuts away to footage from a CCTV camera, which seems to be located in a light bulb that keeps flickering…
…at which point the influence detector goes off again: David Lynch, right? Well, yes and no. Lynch’s flickering light bulbs are caused by extradimensional energy that, coupled with cryptic numerology, can transport people through dimensional rifts opened by atomic bomb tests. Country of Hotels has a flickering light bulb that’s caused by an electrical fault. Martino’s film isn’t purely abstract; it is clearly driven by a need to say something, to tell stories. But it proves most engaging when it’s exploring theme and tone rather than narrative.
Indeed, the film is sufficiently well-thought-through to reveal a certain amount of its core project in the pre-credits scene. Prickly businessman Pauly Blumenthal is recording a video diary, which is being played back on some unseen character’s laptop. He complains about the unimaginative decor of the hotel room, the fact that every picture, every ornament, every light fitting is the same as the last hotel he visited.
It’s not the only thing that’s the same. As Stefano Slocovich’s camera backs away from Pauly’s splenetic vlog, we see that the person watching it is… Pauly himself, immobilised by some strange fear. It is as if this hotel is so identikit, so full of boring, repeated items, that if you stay there long enough it replicates you too. In addition to the classically Freudian uncanny motif of the doppelgänger, you also have the detail that Pauly is watching himself, and many other characters in the story receive that same cold slap in the face of being able to see their actions from a third-person perspective.
Whether all this adds up to much cumulative impact is up to you. Out of all the charges you could level at Country of Hotels, pretension is the one that’s hardest to rebut. There is a moment later on in Pauly’s story where he’s tormented by a strange voice emanating from his air vent in the small hours of the morning. ‘We function not as individual cells but as a mob,’ the voice intones. ‘The only confusion is that we look like individuals, but this is a delusion.’ If it wasn’t for the fact that the voice is female, you’d assume he was being haunted by Adam Curtis.
One man’s pretension, though, is another man’s ambition. Country of Hotels is an independently-funded low-budget feature that, while not exactly a comfortable fit in the horror genre, is at least horror-adjacent. 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.
Fanaras’s score goes into a baroque, perhaps Broadcast-influenced melody when we meet the hotel’s mordant Eastern European receptionist, so perhaps we can add Peter Strickland to the list of potential influences. As with Strickland’s work, there’s a clear erotic tint to Country of Hotels’ horror, although the delicate kink of The Duke of Burgundy (UK, Strickland, 2014) is a long way from the bleak, exploitative forms of sexuality available to Room 508’s occupants. I enjoyed Country of Hotels’ sexual material more when it was at its most playful. The early scene where a woman gets out of the shower to find a gruff handyman at her door waiting to screw in a lightbulb is a witty take on the same porno tropes that might be available on the hotel television, and it’s all the better for Martino and Hauptschein refusing to underline the joke.
One other possible reading of Country of Hotels – which is also strongly suggested by the opening scene – is that it is a film about the inescapability of media. People from the television turn up in the hotel, a stain on the wall resembles the tilted-heart logo of a cheap paperback we’ve seen advertised, and the final story revolves around the entertainment industry. Art is imitating life off-screen as well – Martino has noted the uncanny nature of spending years making a film about isolation, then finishing it in time for a national lockdown.
Perhaps it’s a symptom of having spent too long indoors myself, but I found myself wishing I could isolate in Room 508. Country of Hotels is slightly too long at 105 minutes, and it has the familiar debut film problem of being too overt about its influences, but it has a hell of a mood. Even when I doubted Martino and Hauptschein’s ability to tie all of this up in a satisfying manner, I found the film remarkably absorbing and seductive. Who knows when I’ll next find myself in one of those cheap hotel rooms with nothing tasteful on TV, but when I do I’ll be checking the light fittings.