It seems H.P. Lovecraft is inescapable in and around horror at the moment – evoked in works (like Lovecraft Country) that see him mostly as a racist crackpot as well as adaptations (like Color Out of Space) that rate him as a genre visionary (of course, he was both). Less often cited is Thomas Mann, but Ukrainian writer-director Dimitry Tomashpolskiy’s Stranger references Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain referenced as often as Lovecraft’s made-up grimoire the Necronomicon. In a post-literate age, it’s refreshing that so many characters are so familiar with a book and talk about its characters and situations all the time. The detective even tracks down a missing witness because she’s left a copy of the Mann behind and has borrowed another from a library so she can finish reading it.
Both Lovecraft and Mann were heavy on the philosophy as well as the narrative, and there is at least one recent precedent for fusing their ideas – Gore Verbinski’s very strange A Cure for Wellness. This starts with a disappearances from water – first, an entire synchronised swimming team in front of spectators, then a woman in a locked bathroom at a hydrotherapy clinic located suspiciously near a sewage plant. Inspector Gluhovsky (Anastasiya Yevtushenko), a stern blonde with rosebud lipstick, failed to find the swimmers and seizes the new case in the hope of finally getting closure for the one unsolved mystery on her record. She checks into the turquoise-hued clinic and is assigned to Room 126 – she rattles off numerology and physics associations with the number – which, significantly for followers of seminal feminist ghost stories, has yellow wall-paper.
While posing as a patient, seeking out a pine-and-bubble bath treatment that has sinister significance, Gluhovsky investigates … and becomes convinced she’s the second detective on the case, and a predecessor has gone missing, which leads her to track down the slightly less stern blonde Klaudia (Daria Tregubova) – who might have taken her alias from Mann – and team up with her, though there are more surprises coming and things take a hallucinogenic raptures-of-the-deep turn involving a creepy doll with human hair (Gluhovsky admits she likes horror films), Black Lagoon/Innsmouth-look fish people (including one who declares himself ‘the aquanaut prophet’), a disappeared person who nags the police to tell him if and when he’s reported missing and is depressed because no one bothers (the cops can’t even get his name straight), revelations about the staff (who are uniformly as brunette and blank as the detectives are fair), business with a Victorian painting of bathers which seems to be of those missing 21st century mermaids, and a crucial moment when – after looking down into the water for most of the film – the detective has to look up in awe.
It’s a measured, beautifully-wrought puzzle – and interestingly feminine in a way that Mann and Lovecraft aren’t. It’s more of an ‘isn’t life strange?’ musing than a genre exercise, but it has moments of spookiness, magic, glamour and transcendence.