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A juicy tale of death, madness and mind-bending supernatural weirdness set in the snowy high peaks of Siberia, Ghost Mountaineer is a rare excursion into glossy genre filmmaking from the Baltic republic of Estonia. The plot was inspired by real events in writer-director Urmas Eero Liiv’s own youth, though he teasingly refuses to give full details in promotional interviews. Currently on domestic release after premiering at Tallinn’s Black Nights film festival last month, Liiv’s muddled dramatic debut will likely prove a tough sell overseas, but it should appeal to genre-friendly festivals and fans with an open-minded attitude to schlock-horror thrillers.
The action takes place in 1989, the sunset days of the old Soviet Union. Six Estonian students, mostly geologists, travel east by trans-Siberian railway into Buryatia, a remote region close to the Mongolian border. Their plan is to hike a poorly charted mountain range in search of the ornamental mineral nephrite, but bad planning, sexual tension and internal rifts soon begin to erode group morale. Party-loving joker Eero, played by Matt Damon look-alike Priit Pius, also enjoys scaring the others with spurious folk tales about a murderous “ghost mountaineer” who still haunts these snowy peaks. But the horror takes a more serious turn when the expedition’s self-elected alpha-male leader Olle (Reimoo Sagor) disappears, apparently buried beneath a freak mini avalanche.
After failing to locate Olle’s body, the distraught students descend from the mountain to report his disappearance. But the local police chief (Vadim Andreev) is a sadistic Russian bureaucrat who offers these outsiders a very frosty welcome, seizing their passports and holding them hostage as potential murder suspects. Meanwhile, the indigenous Buryat locals prove increasingly hostile, especially after they discover the Estonians have been stealing their sacred mountain stone. As their nerves begin to fray, the youngsters face a series of nightmarish challenges including a night in a spooky mountain cabin, a hellish autopsy in a sub-zero morgue, and a grisly visitation from the phantom mountaineer.
Wildly uneven in pace and tone, Ghost Mountaineer feels like five different films jostling for attention, with none quite achieving supremacy. Initially a fairly straight jeopardy thriller about attractive youngsters getting lost in the wilderness, it then veers teasingly towards murder mystery, paranormal horror movie, mystical fairy tale and dark political satire about the ingrained corruption of Soviet Communism. All the characters are poorly delineated, especially the Buryat villagers, who are painted in broad-brush terms as superstitious primitives and creepy sex pests. The jumpy editing and strident score are also both disorienting, often crashing into the action at inappropriate times.
That said, Liiv somehow salvages a sporadically gripping thriller out of this sprawling mess, if only because suspense is greatly amplified when a film dispenses with fixed genre rules and narrative logic. The panoramic mountain vistas, partly shot in Italy, are also spectacular while the lurid plot twists may even prove a selling point to fans of more cultish Euro-pulp cinema. Concluding with an update on what the real survivors of these tragic events are doing now, Ghost Mountaineer is a flawed but intriguing cocktail of fact, fiction and folklore.
Production company: Kopli Kinokompanii
Cast: Priit Pius, Liis Lass, Hanna Martinson, Reimoo Sagor, Rait Õunapuu, Vadim Andreev
Director, screenwriter: Urmas Eero Liiv
Producer: Anneli Ahven
Cinematographer: Ants Martin Vahur
Editors: Urmas Eero Liiv, Tambet Tasuja
Art director: Katrin Sipelgas
Music: Tiit Kikas, Arian Levin
Sales company: Kopli Kinokompanii, Tallinn
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