Cult Cinema: A Visitor to a Museum (1989) - Reviewed

Courtesy of Lenfilm
Back in 1986, Ukranian born Soviet/Russian film director Konstantin Lopushansky unveiled Russia’s post-apocalyptic answer to such nuclear holocaust science-fiction horror films as The Day After or Threads with Dead Man’s Letters or Letters from a Dead Man.  Dense, atmospheric, nebulous and ultimately deeply disturbing, the film concerned a group of nuclear holocaust survivors who have barricaded themselves deep inside a decaying history museum for survival.  A monochromatic waking nightmare full of agonized screams and images of tiny human figures moving amid a desolate wasteland, the film was directed by an understudy of Andrei Tarkovsky who even worked on Stalker, ushering in Lopushansky’s bleak futurist visuals and emphasis on echoing resonating ambience and sound effects.

Unbeknownst to Western filmgoers, however, is that Lopushansky wasn’t quite through yet with terrorizing audiences with his dark apocalyptic visions of people living in Hell.  In fact, the director fashioned something of a quartet quadrilogy of films starting with Dead Man’s Letters (or Letters from a Dead Man) and spanning all the way to 2006 with The Ugly Swans.  Immediately following in the footsteps of Letters was the 1989 post-apocalyptic drama film A Visitor to a Museum, a film which all but picks up right where the prior picture left off.  Moreover, this follow-up to the 1986 film bore the distinction of neorealist casting of non-actors including but not limited to disabled or mentally handicapped people, adding a patina of authenticity to the otherwise fantastical proceedings.
Taking place sometime in the future after an unknown global environmental catastrophe sweeps the planet bathing it in red or orange dust and decrepitude are two factions of humans, ordinary unaffected people and disabled “degenerates” mutated by the disaster.  Nearby the sea, a nameless protagonist comes to its precipice waiting for the overflowing water to dry up and reveal a washed up hidden underground city whose epicenter consists of an ancient museum.  While patiently awaiting the event, the man runs into ordinary locals dead set against his venturing into the hidden city, imploring him to stay to hang out, enjoy music or television, eat, drink and have sex.  Meanwhile the so-called “degenerates” have taken to religion and have found some sort of meaning in their lives while also mistaking the protagonist for a godlike being as his own journey towards the hidden city becomes more transformative spiritually and emotionally.

Much like the previous Lenfilm production Letters from a Dead Man, writer-director Lopushansky’s film wallows in apocalyptic ruin with vaguely human characters wiggling and thrashing about the scorched unearthly landscapes.  Reuniting the director with cinematographer Nikolai Pokoptsev, as with Letters the film has an orangey-brown dimly lit visual schema that will remind some viewers of Lars Von Trier’s The Element of Crime, also an equally dense brooder.  There’s also a moody ambient score rendered disturbingly by Vladimir Deshov, Viktor Kisin and Alfred Schnittke which soaks the viewer through to the bone with unease if not a sense of dread.  Unlike Letters however which had the contributions of legendary author Boris Strugatsky, Lopushansky is flying solo this time, pulling from kindred post-apocalyptic terrain but with a decidedly docudrama approach while keeping the names and narrative intent nebulous.
Though the film features many actors including but not limited to Viktor Mikhailov as the titular Visitor, Vera Mayorova and Vadim Lobanov as the beleaguered hotel managers and Irina Rakshina as a “degenerate” maid, Lopushanksky and his cameraman are the real stars of this sordid rusting show.  Running considerably longer than Letters with some sequences that intentionally meander with a kind of sleepiness akin to the aforementioned Von Trier and particularly David Lynch, A Visitor to a Museum or Museum Visitor depending on the translation is like being stuck deep in the Temple of Doom without an exit while the sky fluctuates between yucky grays and deep oppressive reds.  Not to mention the sound design which drifts between choral voices and distant screams, making it an unpleasant place to hear.

Less of a straightforward narrative than a sensory experience that lulls you into a false sense of comfort and security before gradually inching you closer and closer to the mouth of Hell itself, A Visitor to a Museum became the second entry in what would ultimately become a quartet of Russian cinematic Hellscapes with startling vastness and a dedicated cast ready for anything.  How Soviet audiences must’ve reacted to this waking nightmare is anyone’s guess but as an American filmgoer it was a slowly roasted burn that gradually siphoned out any and all tiny rays of hope for a positive outcome.  Almost expressionist in its flickering gold/yellow vistas and sense of the uncanny, Lopushansky’s despairing horror film isn’t for all tastes but those keen on atmospheric horror that doesn’t quite reveal its purpose immediately will love swimming deep through its nuclear contaminated waters.

--Andrew Kotwicki