The return of the Soviet: the case of the new Russian horror cinema
Within various national cinemas all over the world, genre film-making with its good faith in spectacle, action and thrills was always used as a way to establish a competitive film industry, the output of which will be appealing both to local as well as international audiences. Horror films serve as a good example here, since all people, regardless of their ethnic background, are conversant with the language of fear.
That is why Hammer in its best years enjoyed world-wide distribution, Japanese new horror cinema from Ringu (1998) to Pulse (2005) has found audiences all over the world, and Guillermo del Torro is in the sun of the international glory.
But this is not the case of the new Russian horror cinema. We are not even sure if the term is valid, because with few exceptions it is a bunch of films with low budgets and bad scripts, that have hardly any box office success nationally, all the more so internationally. However, for some reasons Russian film-makers continue to indulge themselves time and time again in these fruitless attempts to produce something horrifying.
So what’s the point? Our theory runs as follows: these horror films serve as a site for the return of the repressed. Big deal, we all know what Robin Wood taught us, you say: monsters are the embodiment of the Other, symbols of what we tend to repress and preserve in our unconscious, as it seems unacceptable to our conscious mind.
But what is peculiar about this case is that in the new Russian horror films the repressed “Other” becomes a synonym for the “Soviet”. It is particularly the darker aspects of the “Soviet” that a person, who lived most of his life during the socialist regime, cannot recognise or accept, therefore is compelled to repress. As a result, the horrific “Soviet” returns in these films in the most interesting forms.
S.S.D. (С.С.Д., 2008), also known as Horror Stories of a Soviet Childhood, is a recent Russian slasher that resolves around a reality show taking place in an abandoned pioneer camp. As soon as participants arrive to the set, they find out there is a maniac, who is now going to butcher them, using Soviet children’s horror stories as narratives for the killings.
The creators of S.S.D. sensed that the breasts of Anfisa Chekhova can redeem everything, even an unscary horror film…
… therefore accentuated them a lot…
…sometimes even too much.
Now a special word has to be said about this very particular kind of folk art. They were short horror stories, made up by children and transmitted orally, notable for their specific topography and colour coding. Famous examples include “Red gloves”, “Black piano”, “Blue curtains”, etc. Simplistic and absurd, they often ended with the main heroes – always children, facing a horrible death, most often due to their disobedience to adults.
Having such a wide field for experiments with the national dimension of the genre, the writers totally screwed and in the end nothing in the film makes sense. But what we see in S.S.D., is a group of young people, born and raised in the USSR, who crave for new experiences and adventures that post-Soviet Russia offers. However, the horrors that haunted their Soviet childhood won’t let them go so easily.
Another good example is Trackman (Путевой обходчик, 2007), a highly abusive of slow-motion photography attempt to pay homage to My Bloody Valentine (1981). But also here the “Soviet” haunts the screen. Even the motto of the film literally says “Old nightmares acquire a new face”.
After the bank robbery, three outlaws along with their hostages have to escape through abandoned tunnels of Moscow’s underground. While looking for exit, somebody brings up a story about victims of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe: supposedly they were brought to these tunnels with the purpose of research. Only one of the irradiated survived the experiments, killed all the scientists and guards, and now is wandering in the tunnels.
Chernobyl is one of the tragic pages in the history of the Soviet Union that stroke a great number of families not only in the Ukrainian SSR. Like in the case of S.S.D., the heroes of Trackman are greedy for easy money in the world of new opportunities, but the Soviet past has a tenacious grip. As a bag with the robbed money becomes a burden for the characters, the print on it acquires symbolic meaning:
Last example we want to mention here is The Phobos: Fear Kills (Фобос: Клуб страха, 2010) – equally bad Russian horror film, in which the return of the “Soviet repressed” is the most explicit.
Phobos is going to be a trendy night club, now under construction. The premises of the club are a former bomb shelter, at least that’s what its young owner Zhenya believes. He brings his friends to check the place out and to have a sort of pre-opening party.
But the Soviet past won’t let the kids party: soon enough the characters find out that beneath the dance floor lies a KGB torture chamber. When the doors of the bunker are suddenly blocked, the characters don’t have any other choice but to go down and face the horrors of the past.
The clash between “the normal” and “the monstrous” is at the core of any horror film. Usually the monstrous has certain socio-political connotations, but in order to be scary it needs to become more abstract. But in the case of recent Russian horror films, it is clearly “the Soviet” which is comes in conflict with “the Russian”.
Maybe when Russians finally unload the burden of totalitarian past, their horror films will become scary, but for now our theory of “the return of the Soviet” imparts them with a higher purpose: these films can be regarded as remedy that helps to deal with the traumas of the past.