I enjoyed Hotel Poseidon a lot more when it was over than while I was watching it – there’s so much to admire and appreciate in this glum-surreal nightmare, but it goes out of its way to permeate every frame with grime and put grating noises on the soundtrack. Hapless loser protagonist Dave (Tom Vermeir) is assailed by a succession of grotesque characters who want to give him a hard time. Writer-director Stef Lernous has a background in theatre – his company is called Abattoir Fermé – and creates an entirely setbound world in the eponymous hotel, which at one point contains a primordial jungle but never affords a glimpse of any world outside. It has echoes of Eraserhead, Forbidden World and Delicatessen in its stylised but down-at-heel approach, but also feels as if it could just be showing you a day in someone’s hell, full of deeply personal material that seems confounding to outsiders.
Dave trudges around the decaying aquarium-themed hotel he inherited from his father (Gene Bervoets, of The Vanishing), which is officially closed but still has residents or squatters in various corners. Dutch tourist Nora (Anneke Sluiters) cajoles her way in to stay overnight, and seems the most normal person in the film – though it turns out she has some sort of Poison Ivy mad science experiment in mind. Nora also finds a dead old woman in the halls – it’s Dave’s Aunt Lucy, whose pension has kept the family afloat, and he can’t afford the funeral costs (Tine Van den Wyngaert may give the film’s weirdest performance as a curiously cadenced undertaker). Jacki (Dominique Van Malder) is planning a big party at the hotel, and agrees to solve the Aunt Lucy problem if Dave gives him his deposit back – which sets up some gruesome corpse-disposal stuff, though that’s less disturbing than the big party, which is what might happen if John Waters’ regular cast hung out in one of the infernal night-spots from David Lynch’s films and did their patter schtick in Flemish.
Then, Dave finds himself in that jungle, observed by Nora and minions, living apparently for years among foliage, mists and unseen fauna in what might be a very abstruse inversion of the opening and closing scenes of 2001 (Vermeir does an a capella ‘Daisy’ over the end credits). There’s only one ending imaginable for this sort of recurring bad dream, and Lernous’ doesn’t hold back from it. It’s consistent, at least – characters sport pancakey stage makeup and Joker grins, everything is damp and filthy, the electrics are rickety and on the point of seizing up – and Lernous obviously relishes the chance to play with shots and scenes from his favourite films, with one long-kiss-in-a-lift moment modelled on Vertigo but with a very different bit of stage trickery as a set is dismantled around a smooching couple.