Спайс бойз 2019
11:00 AM - 1:50 PM EDT
11:00 AM - 1:30 PM EDT
Contemporary Russian Horror Cinema
Eva Ivanilova and Denis Saltykov — One could say that the contemporary Russian film industry has emerged through genre cinema. It was Timur Bekmambetov’s action sci-fi Night Watch that premiered in 2004 and became the first serious box-office success for a national film since the fall of the Soviet Union. Since 2004, Russian filmmakers started producing genre films more often.
Horror has become one of the recent trends in Russian genre cinema. It started with the box-office success of Sviatoslav Podgaevskii’s Queen of Spades: The Dark Rite (2015), followed by his even more successful The Bride (2017). Both films have been acquired by international digital services, and Lionsgate studio has even started developing The Bride’s US remake. The national and international success of these films influenced some producers, which led to the appearance of more Russian horror films. Nikolai Gogol'’s classical stories constitute a base for the national horror legacy, at least in cinema. They influenced not only direct adaptations such as Viy (Oleg Stepchenko, 2014) but also the inventive horror-mystery series Gogol (Egor Baranov, 2017-2018) that had a successful theatrical release in Russia.
Russian filmmakers continue to use the horror genre to engage with the country’s past both stylistically—as in the gothic film The Ninth (Nikolai Khomeriki, 2019)—and sometimes thematically. Quiet Comes the Dawn (Pavel Sidorov, 2019), for example, features elements of new-age mysticism and the Soviet cultural legacy (the film is set in a Moscow research institute built in the 1980s). Sputnik (Egor Abramenko, 2020), with its higher production value, also invokes late Soviet history as a setting for a “creature feature,” in which KGB agents are no less important an alien from outer space.
The recent popularization of the horror genre coincided with the time when more women in Russia started to participate in film production. Relatively low-cost productions and developed technical aspects of filmmaking have opened the door for women directors to navigate the genre. Natal'ia Pershina’s directorial debut Dead Swallows participated in a major Russian film festival, Kinotavr, in 2018. Anna Mikhalkova’s slasher Cursed Seat was released in Russian theaters in the same year; Ol'ga Gorodetskaia’s film Stray came out in 2019, and Natal'ia Merkulova took part in the screenwriting team for Gogol series.
In the broad spectrum of Russian genre cinema, one particular element is, fortunately, inescapable—"Sakhawood.” Sakhafilm, the first national film company in the largest region of Russia, had been established in 1992, almost simultaneously with the first constitution of the Republic of Sakha. Over the next decades, its national imaginary, local identity, and domestic cinema all developed rapidly side by side. Their synthesis has occurred primarily through a Sakha traditional folk genre, a kind of short story about ghosts and spirits called túbelte, which was ready both for the transition to screen and for a dialogue with its Western and Japanese counterparts. Túbelte was the genre of the first Sakha-language film Maappa (Aleksei Romanov, 1986), the first locally popular film, The Cursed Land (Elley Ivanov, 1996), and the first commercially successful horror Path of Death (Anatolii Sergeev, 2006), all of which combined tropes from túbelte with recognizable Western horror cliches. By the second half of the 2000s, semi-amateur Sakha cinema had grown into a full-fledged film industry with a domestic market. Recognition outside the republic is a major stage in the history of Sakha cinema, and the horror genre keeps serving as one of the main vehicles for Sakha technological shamanism. Kostas Marsaan’s ethnic horror Ich-chi (2020), an entry in our program, is the first Sakha film that has received international distribution. In 2016, Marsaan’s debut film, My Killer, entered the long list of the Golden Globe Awards, and then became the first Sakha film shown in theaters across Russia. In the near future, Ich-chi will be released internationally and we are delighted to present its pre-premiere screening.
The horror genre has developed rapidly not only within the boundaries of Russia but in some of the other post-Soviet countries as well. In Belarus, one of the first contemporary attempts to create a national horror film in the region was made in 2010 with Andrei Kudinenko’s Masakra. Later in the same decade, the horror genre was used by such independent directors as Nikita Lavretskii (Sasha’s Hell, 2019) and the creative duo of Viktor Lebedev and Anna Den (Semiconductor, 2018, in collaboration with Oleg Mavromatti). The most recent Belarusian horror is Spice Boyz (Vladimir Zinkevich, 2020), a grotesque story about the consequences of drug use. All of the films mentioned here are in Russian; the breakup of the Soviet Union left a linguistic legacy that still sustains a common field of intelligibility and makes most of the Belarusian films available to viewers separated by eleven time zones, as well as profoundly different confessions, ethnicities, and citizenships. To the extent that the University of Pittsburgh offers a Russian-[language] Film Symposium—rather than an exclusively Russian-[citizen] Film Symposium—this film holds a rightful place in our discussions this year.
Russian horror cinema (especially if defined broadly) is aesthetically diverse and visually fascinating. Its formula of combining Western genre elements with local history, folklore, and contemporary cultural context renders these films both original and accessible to the global audience.