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Russian Horror Essentials

Russian horror cinema? Yes, there is such a thing, although examples of such tend to be few and far between. Obviously horror never jibed especially well with the tenants of the Soviet years and their strict adherence to ďSoviet Realism,Ē and nor is it too compatible with the type of poetic reveries practiced by seminal Russian filmmakers like Alexander Dovzhenko and Andrei Tarkovsky. Nonetheless, there do exist several strong, and even essential, Russian horror films.

     Just check out the astonishing VIY from 1967, the first and arguably best Russian horror film. Adapted from a 19th Century story by Nikolai Gogol, itís a first-class exercise in gothic delirium that boasts a wealth of extraordinary low budget special effects.
     The amazing sights on display include the hapless protagonist flying through the air with a witch on his back, a vampire woman riding a floating coffin and the climactic procession of hell-spawned monsters, which remains a benchmark of hackle-raising horror. Credit goes to the filmís directors Georgi Kropachyov and Konstantin Yershov, whose skill with lighting and set decoration (Kropachyov is a noted production designer) is evident throughout, as well as the legendary fantasy filmmaker Alexander Ptushko (of SADKO and RUSLAN AND LUDMILA), who handled the special effects. Their combined efforts resulted in a triumph of ingenuity and imagination that has yet to be equaled, much less surpassed.

     The following year brought another nearly-as-potent Nikolai Gogol adaptation, THE EVE OF IVAN KUPALO (VECHER NAKANUNE IVANA KUPALA). The director and cinematographer was the late Yuri Ilyneko, whose visual eye (developed while working on films like A SPRING FOR THE THIRSTY and SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS) was like no one elseís. Here, in this phantasmagoric recounting of a love-sick young man who goes mad after making a deal with the devil in a futile effort to win the heart of his beloved, Ilyneko provides a wealth of amazing surreal images.
     Together with the late Sergei Parajanov, Yuri Ilyneko was part of the Ukrainian poetic movement, whose emphasis was on image-based non-linear filmmaking. This wildly fragmented and chaotic film is a prime example of such, yet IVAN KUPALO ultimately exists in a category of its own, being a quintessentially Eastern example of gothic surrealism at its wildest.

     Moving forward a decade to 1979, we come to THE SAVAGE HUNT OF KING STACH (DIKAYA OKHOTA KOROLYA STAKHA), a somewhat more traditional horror fest. Inspired by a 1964 novel by Uladzimir Karatkievic, the film is about a (seemingly) ghostly band of 17th Century hunters who are seeking to kill off the ancestors of those who betrayed and murdered their leader.
     The problem with the film (and the novel) is that it explains away its tantalizingly spooky premise in a disappointing SCOOBY DOO-like coda, wherein we learn all the ghostliness has a rational explanation. Phooey! I do recommend this film, however, for its gorgeous dark-hued photography and powerfully ominous ambiance. In this respect it favorably recalls the work of masters of the form like Georges Franju and Mario Bava, and had THE SAVAGE HUNT OF KING STACH sustained that ominous air it might well have joined their company.

     Elem Klimovís frenzied historic chronicle AGONY (AGONIYA) wasnít intended as a horror movie, yet thatís arguably how it wound up. Itís an epic dramatization of the reign of Nikolai Rasputin, a peasant who managed to exert a near-hypnotic influence over the Russian Tsar and Tsarina during the early part of the 20th Century. There exists at least one outright horror movie on the subject, 1966ís Hammer production RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK (with a suitably over-the-top Christopher Lee in the title role), but Klimovís is by far the most horrific and excessive Rasputin film ever made. It was completed in 1975 and promptly banned by communist authorities, only to reappear in a pared-down 143-minute cut in the eighties, which is the version currently available on DVD and the one under review here.
     You can certainly argue with this filmís Soviet-friendly portrayal of Rasputin as a blathering psychopath. Most accounts Iíve read (including Rene Fulop-Millerís RASPUTIN THE HOLY DEVIL and a memoir by Rasputinís daughter) depict the man as a dedicated and enormously charismatic individual who liked to party (sort of like a Russian Bill Clinton), which definitely isnít how heís portrayed here. Yet taken purely for it is--an unabashedly nightmarish, almost CALIGULA-esque depiction of a country held captive by a madman--I canít argue that AGONY works smashingly well, with a lead performance by Alexei Petrenko thatís so wildly unhinged it often approaches campÖand so fits right in with the film as a whole.

     Weíll have to skip over a full two decades to arrive at the following selection. To be sure, Russia turned out many interesting horror-tinged science fiction dramas during the eighties (LETTERS FROM A DEAD MAN, KIN-DZA-DZA), and the nineties brought quite a few notable cult films (CITY ZERO, OF FREAKS AND MEN), but it wasnít until 2004 that the next great Russian horror film arrived: Timur Bekmambetovís NIGHT WATCH (NOCHNOY DOZOR).
     Itís an unabashedly flashy and commercial product about an age-old battle between supernaturally endowed good and evil factions, whose participants keep day and night watches to contain each other. The film is despised by many but I got a kick out of it, if only because itís extremely well produced and has a wonderfully unhinged, go-for-broke spirit reminiscent of Tsui Harkís Hong Kong classic ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN.
     Originally made for Russian television, NIGHT WATCH was an attempt at competing with Hollywood special effects extravaganzas, and, in its native country (where it quickly became a box office smash) it definitely achieved its goal. The ending, needless to add, leaves the door wide open for a sequel, which arrived in the form of Ď05ís equally bombastic DAY WATCH. A third WATCH film has been promised but has yet to materialize.

     Finally we have what may be the most Russian-seeming film on this list: Alexandr Sokurovís FAUST from 2011. A brooding, poetic and unabashedly arty reverie, the film was shot in German with continuous dialogue, much of it taken directly from Goetheís text. Nonetheless, the film is pure Alexandr Sokurov through and through. Sokurov was a protťgťe of the late Andrei Tarkovsky, and has taken his mentorís place as Russiaís premiere art-house filmmaker with highly idiosyncratic films like MOTHER AND SON (1997) and RUSSIAN ARK (2002). FAUST, despite its surfeit of dialogue (Sokurovís other films have been called ďfilmed paintingsĒ), is very much a like-minded addition.
     The film is not for everybody, having apparently inspired mass walkouts during preliminary screenings. Yet those willing to brave Sokurovís labyrinths and enigmas are in for a difficult yet rewarding viewing experience thatís about as close to a dream as cinema has come. I will concede, however, that Sokurovís film is a lot more fun to describe and/or think back on than it is to sit through!

 

--5/10/12

     

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