The Hard Fate of Horror Movies in Russia

Would You Watch a Russian Horror Movie On Halloween?

It’s Halloween, and many people are looking for new horror movies to kill time during the night after filling their stomachs full with the traditional mini-sweets (have you noticed that those Halloween candies are getting smaller and smaller?). Supermarkets all across North America have been displaying Hollywood horror movies for weeks, and I couldn’t help but wonder why that genre has never been popular in Russia?

My very first encounter with horror movies happened when I was ten years old. It was late Perestroika, the Soviet Union was about to collapse. Hollywood movies flooded Soviet/Russian TV and cinemas. My older sister and her boyfriend often watched TV in our tiny apartment in a Siberian commieblock, and I usually joined them to their great annoyance. One of the movies we watched together was Prince of Darkness, 1987, starring charming Alice Cooper as Street Schizo. To say the least, I was shocked, mostly because I was totally unprepared for this sort of movies. Soviet movies didn’t have that much graphic violence and they were way less vivid and dynamic. I was thrilled and disgusted at the same time, and couldn’t stop watching even though some scenes made me sick. When I finally went to bed, I couldn’t sleep and lay listening to the ‘suspicious’ sounds outside.

One of the reasons why my first horror movie shocked my imagination was that horror movies as a genre didn’t really existed in the USSR. The Soviet ideology was materialistic positivism, meaning that anything must be explained with natural phenomena, and their properties and relations. Everything in the world was interpreted through reason and logic, and no spiritual entities could ever be called in. Zombie, curses, vengeful dead — all that was considered inappropriate and deleterious  for the Soviet audience.

Materialism leaves very few to horror movies, and yet, there was one single movie that made it to the screen. It was Viy, 1967, an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol story of the same name. It had it all: witches, dead seeking revenge, flying coffins, vampires, and the king monster Viy himself, a mythical character whose mere look kills, and whose eyelids were so heavy that other creatures help him to open his eyes. The movie was a success. Make-up and costume artists went above and beyond. Special effects used in the movie were way ahead of their time. The acting was impeccable. Young Natalia Varley charmed everyone in the Soviet Union with her beauty and talent. No wonder that Russian speaking audience still love this movie.

Natalia Varley as Pannochka, Viy 1967

Just like Gogol was unique in Russian literature, the adaptation of his work remained unique in the Soviet cinematography. For decades, Viy remained the only horror movie in Russian. There were some other movies with some  supernatural-suspense-like fleur, but in order to fit in into the mainstream Soviet ideology, they were turned into sci-fi, where advanced technologies of the distant future were used to explain everything ‘weird.’

Perestroika was the time when the Soviets were exposed to the Western pop-culture, its unfiltered, uncensored version. Along with real masterpieces, a lot of not-so high-ranked movies made their way to the Soviet screen. The reaction of the Russian-speaking audience to horror-movies was controversial. Suspense was normally well-perceived, but Soviet people didn’t understand why there were so many anatomical details, all that blood, guts, worms, spiders, and such. That was neither scary nor suspenseful, just plainly stupid. The commonly shared opinion on the Hollywood’s horror movies was that people in the West might be living a very boring and easy life and needed a shot of adrenaline.

If you watch modern Russian movies you’ll probably find them being closer to Hollywood standards and perhaps less “old-school Soviet style.” In the past two decades, more Russian films were introduced to the Western audience than ever before, and some of them met success. Yet, horror movies is one of the genres where Russian movies have had very few achievements. Russian cinephile forums ridicule Russian horror films. Critics bash those movies for blindly copying Hollywood clichés, and the ordinary audience boos in their reviews too. It seems like horror is a genre still of no interest to many in Russia.

Проигранное место (Cursed Seat) directed by Nadezhda Mikhalkova is one of the most recent attempts to create a horror movie in the Russian environment. Nadezhda Mikhalkova is the daughter of a highly decorated (and politically controversial) actor and film director Nikita Mikhalkov. This is her debut film as a director, but as an actress, Mikhalkova was active since she was six years old. One would expect the young director with a family background like hers to succeed, but the Russian audience was clearly unimpressed with Проигранное место. The movie’s rating on IMDB is 2.9 and it is very generous compared to what Russian critics wrote in their reviews on Russian film portals. However, there are a few reasons why you might want to watch this movie.

  1. Easy to follow and engaging plot. In the center of the plot is an urban legend about the so-called lost seat in the city cinema theater. According to the legend, everyone who buys a movie ticket to this seat is waiting for death. The legend is told as a “horror story” by one of the teenagers in the group of classmates that gathered around a campfire and played a variation of a bottle flip game. None of the guys believe in it, but a series of brutal murders makes these young people think, and as a result of which they begin their own investigation.
  2. Modern slang, colloquial Russian. If you want to learn how today’s Russian teens communicate, this movie can be quite helpful. Language-wise, the movie is a good source of slang, jokes, and cultural references.
  3. Modern music. The soundtrack is up-to-date, and though I personally am not a big fan of that sort of music, I think it could be interesting and helpful for Russian language learners.
  4. Russian environment in details. Though many Russian critics said that the movie is ridiculously westernized, you will see many plausible details of Russian everyday life. I’d say, the movie is informative enough and worthy for 91 minutes of time.

Once again, this is probably not the best example of the Russian cinematography, but if you really want something unusual for your Halloween night, maybe you’d want to give the Cursed Seat a try.

(featured image by r. nial bradshaw)