HORROR FILMS FROM BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN.

ФИЛЬМЫ УЖАСОВ ИЗ-ЗА ЖЕЛЕЗНОГО ЗАНАВЕСА.

Many of you may remember the Iron Curtain, or at least heard of it. I remember as a kid thinking that’s a big curtain if it is between countries, and I wonder how they put that up. Of course, after a while I realised it was not an actual curtain made of iron, but a metaphor used by the west or America to describe the line that the USSR had basically drawn across Europe. In Russia for some reason Horror movies were not exactly welcomed by the powers in the Kremlin, but still they were produced and there were in fact a lot of fine examples of chillers, gothic horrors and tales of the macabre, witchery, magic and mystery. I recently scratched the surface of the RED western or the OSTERN/EASTERN as it was often referred to, which was a genre that had its only style and contained various storylines all of which were produced in Eastern European countries that were inside the Warsaw pact. I started at the same time to see examples of Horror movies, but these were not as well documented, so I decided to investigate these quirky but very scary tales that had been committed to celluloid further, not realising just how many there were and more to the point how interesting they are.  I suppose I should refer to the origin of these movies by saying they are Eastern bloc productions, which encompasses the nations under the protection and influence of the Soviet Union, in affect ruled by Moscow. Its not just the films I am interested in but also the musical scores for these tales of terror, mayhem, and chaos.

 However, to begin I would like to open with a production that was released long after the Iron Curtain had fallen, this fairly recent addition comes in the form of the disturbing but at the same time alluring 2017 production from Estonia, November , which has been described as containing elements of the Grimm fairly tales and stories from Eastern European folklore. One critic described it as being As, Beautiful as it is as weird as Fxxx”.

Directed by Rainer Sarnet, the focus of the movie is an Estonian village, which has at its core strong Pagan beliefs. It is a place where werewolves roam the countryside, there is plague and an abundance of spirits. The villagers main aim however is to survive the long freezing winter and the darkness, and bleakness that accompanies and surrounds it. To survive there seems to be nothing that they will not do, and there is nothing that is off-limits. The villagers care not for each other as they steal from one another not really having any thought for their fellow people, they also steal from their German Lords who oversee the countryside and are not frightened to also pilfer from the devil, who often frequents the countryside around the village, neither it seems do not feel guilty about taking from God himself.

Amongst all of this confusion and chaos a young farm girl falls in love with a boy from the village, but the boy is also desired by a visiting German Baroness, which complicates things greatly for the Farm girl. The movie features, Rea Lest, Jorgen Liik, Arvo Kukumagi, Katarina Unt, and Taavi Eelmaa.

Filmed in black and white, which makes the action and storyline seem more real, and adds a greater chill to the proceedings. November is an atmospheric and mesmerising movie, both in its appearance and its content, it is a beautiful but twisted tale, a tormented yet seductive piece and one that you will think of long after you have ceased to view it the storyline conjuring up nightmarish thoughts in ones sub-conscious, I am of the opinion that November, is as disturbing as movies such as The VVitch (2015). It is a story of intense love but also a story of survival, set in the 19th century, and also a film that seems to throw everything at the watching audience, making it believable and shocking. The highly creative and haunting musical score is by Polish born Michael Jacaszek, this composer, producer and sound artist has created an edgy and nightmarishly dreamlike sounding score, which is a mixture of thematic material and sound design, the layers of colours and varied textures fashion an attractive but at the same time apprehensive musical persona.

He is often credited as just Jacaszek and has also produced several recordings that could be labelled as being new age. His electrocoustic approach is well suited to the many harrowing, romantic and mysterious scenarios that one encounters within this dark and richly virulent movie. From 2017 we go back now to other decades, and even to the 1960’s  which was the time of the cold war, and the ever present threat and  ever-growing tensions between the Soviet Union and The United States of America. So, I start with the sixties, which was a time of Carnaby street, pop music and free love in the western world.

The next movie is a Polish produced horror, that deals with demonic possession. Directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, who was also a politician, and had been a member of Polish United Workers’ Party from 1954 until its dissolution in 1990 and a deputy in Polish parliament from 1985 until 1989. It was supposedly based upon true events and based upon the Loundun Possessions, the movie Mother Joan of the Angels (1962), is set in a small village in Poland, it is the seventeenth century and a group of nuns are said to have been the subject of demonic possession. A priest portrayed by Mieczyslaw Voit, is sent to help them and to investigate the reported mass possession.  The worst affected nun is Mother Joan played by Lucyna Winnicka.

The priest arrives and soon has a frightening encounter with Mother Joan and the demon that possesses her. He is told in a rasping and guttural sounding voice that it will not be easy to banish the demon and make it leave the nun. This is a classic good vs evil encounter, a battle for the soul of a woman and a fight to the death if that be necessary. The movie itself is not that scary and compared with newer additions to the horror genre it is more cerebral rather than gory, which for me personally is not a bad thing.  The nuns at the convent are somewhat disturbing, I think it could be the way that they move or have been choreographed by the director, but there seems to be a coldness a blank and expressionless look to them that is unnerving and hugely unsettling.

The movie in my opinion has much going for it, as I have said it does not have to resort to gore and violence. It may not be as fast paced as other examples, but because it gives the audience something to think about it just works. I suppose one could draw comparisons with The Devils which hit our screens back in 1971, but in my humble opinion, Mother Joan of the Angels is a far better watch. The musical score by Polish born Adam Walacinski, is also an unsettling one. Walaciński, was not only a composer, but also taught music. He was born on September 18th1928, in Krokow Poland. The composer received private tuition in violin from Wactaw Niemczyk and then studied violin with Eugenia Uminska, plus trained in composition with Artur Malawski at the State Higher School of Music in Krakow.

He is better known as a composer of film and TV music and began his film scoring career in 1957 when he provided the musical score for Zimowv Zmierzch, which was a drama. His film scoring career seems to have ceased in 1981, when he worked on the TV short Na Meline.  He died in Krakow on August 4th, 2015 he was 86.

From Poland to the Soviet Union, or should I say Russia, because some of the films I will highlight were produced when the Soviet Union ceased to exist. But before I start with the movies and also look at the composers who scored them, it might be a good idea to explain the attitude of the Kremlin towards films in the horror genre that were being produced in Russia. It was basically a case of the powers that be suppressing the creative freedom of many filmmakers, The Soviet higher Archy viewed cinema as a tool for both propaganda and education and also looked to it to influence the masses. So, for them the horror movie served very-little purpose. Thus, they became outlawed, more or less.  Many movies that were produced in Russia at this time which was post WWll through to the fall of the Berlin wall would focus upon adventure or dramatic/romantic story lines.  But as was the way then, filmmakers would carry on producing the horror themed film, even if it was at the risk of the authorities stepping in.  Russian horror movies do not take the route of what we in the west see as tales of horror, Russian horror films are heavily influenced by the old ways and also the inclusion of creepy folklore alongside wierd well relationships with either technology, bureaucracy, power, and even romance. And this is why I think I personally find many of them fascinating, they rely more upon the story telling rather than the violence the shock and the gore. It is not a rampaging monster that one see’s or hears on screen that grips the audience with fear, but Russian films mostly focus more upon the unknown, the unseen and the eerie atmospheres alongside the paranoia, these elements make up the monsters in Russian/Eastern European horrors.  One movie I think that has a dual category or genre must be Solaris from 1972.

The movie, which was directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, is probably one of his best-known outside of Russia, but strangely the filmmaker has said many times that it his least favourite work.  The story is about a psychologist Kris Kelvin who has been sent to a space station which is orbiting the moon of a far-off planet. As soon as he arrives, he senses that all is not right, it is a sci-fi movie that has within it psychological disturbing scenes and terrifying themes, some of which I thought did have to them connections with vampires, in a roundabout way that is, but maybe that is just me.  The psychological element creates a greater emotional depth, but there are still horror references. The film like many others by the filmmaker is shall we say an acquired taste, the slow-moving action is not too the  liking of all,  the filmmaker creating a dense and almost tiring, lethargic  atmosphere with the style of direction he employs.

The music is by Euard Artemyev who was born in Novosibirsk  and studied at the Moscow Consevatory under Yuri Shaporin. The composer/musician’s interest in electronic music and the use of synthesisers began after his graduation from the conservatory, which was in 1960, but at this time electronic music was still in its early days of development. Artemyev wrote his first piece in 1967 and utilised one of the first synthesisers to be developed in Russia which had been designed by Evgeny Murzin, which made him one of the first composers to do so and also made him a pioneer and a champion of electronic music composition. His collaboration with the film director Andrei Tarkovsky in the 1970s made him well-known. He wrote the film scores of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Zerkalo, and Stalker.  

After this the composer became in demand and worked on films directed by Andrei Konchalovsky and Nikita Mikhalkov. His film soundtracks and also his other music has received many accolades from both critics, fans and contemporaries, and he has also garnered threeNika Awards . The composer actually licensed several excerpts from the Solaris soundtrack in order to use them in the later Spanish  production entitled The Cosmonaut.
  

We jump forward a couple of decades for the next movie, The Savage Hunt of King Stakh, was released in 1980, this drama-thriller which I suppose does also have to it enough horror content to also be categorised within the horror genre, was directed by Valeri Rubinchik, It is the story of  a young ethnographer, Andrej Bielarecki, who takes himself off to the dense woodland in Belarus in order to carry out research on the folk tales that have been passed down from generation to generation. Straight away because of the eerie location one’s mind goes into overdrive and starts to image all sorts of ghostly goings on.  The film which is based upon the writings of V.Korotkevich however does come across as being a little lack lustre in the special effects department and also was rather disappointing when it came to the score and the overall standard of acting. But, it is a wonderfully haunting movie and also has a real commitment to exploring the strange and gothic influences and content and this is probably why it does invariably make onto so many Best of lists, but in reality it is not that good when one sits and really focuses upon it and its storyline.  When the movie was released it was popular with audiences, who seemed to be impressed with its dark thrills.

The musical score which was largely forgettable, but maybe that is a good thing because one is not distracted from the scenarios unfolding on screen, was by composer Evegeny Glebov, the Maestro was classically trained and self-taught and focused mainly on music for the concert hall, Opera and Ballet, his music for the Ballet The Chosen One (1969) for me personally is akin to much of the music from movies that were released during the 1950’s and 1960’s in both Russia and the surrounding countries, of the Eastern Bloc, there is a sound and style within it that makes one wonder if it is actually from a movie score or indeed a ballet which of course it is.

Glebov excelled in the writing of what is normally referred to as serious music and was acclaimed by many for his achievements in composition, but his film scores were not as popular as his classical works. He was born in Roslavia on September 1929, and graduated in 1947 from the High School which at the time was named The Roslavi Railway College. After his graduation he took up employment as a car inspector in the town of Mogiev, but this was not a career he was destined to continue in. He had always been attracted to music right from his days as a young child, and under his own initiative decided to learn to play Mandolin, Guitar, and Balalaika. As a young man he began to compose a few works which were mainly songs, or music for romantic production in the theatre. He later returned to the Railway college where he undertook to learn the basics of composition, But was refused entry to Music School after the board of governors discovered that he had no real qualifications in music and was mostly self-taught, it was not until 1956 that he managed to complete his musical studies at the Belarusian Conservatory in Minsk. His film scoring career began in 1960, and during a period of forty years he provided the scores for approximately thirty-five projects, which were a mixture of TV series and films, feature films, shorts, and documentaries. He died on January 12th, 2000 in Minsk.

Mister Designer-aka- Gospodin Oformitel, (1987)is a somewhat surreal example of a horror movie that was directed by Oleg Teptsov, the plot concentrates upon a famous artist named Platon Andreevich who is attempting to discover the secret of eternal youth. He thinks that he may be able to achieve his goal via the stunningly attractive mannequins that he creates. This was Tepstov’s debut as a director and works well on many levels, purveying and relaying deep emotion and impacting philosophic moments, and successfully challenges established religious and cultural medians. It was one of the last important movies to be produced before the cinematic styles of the old Soviet Union began to alter and shift.  

The entertaining and inventive musical score was by Sergei Kuryokhin, it is a score that not only worked well within the movie but was hugely entertaining away from the images. Selections of the composers score for Mister Designer were performed in concert at the Moscow Conservatory in 2015.

The orchestration of the score too is varied and appealing, the composer enlisting soprano and solo saxophone as well as a  line-up of brass, strings, and woods thus keeping the music fresh and vibrant and contemporary throughout as well as being wonderfully supportive of the movie and its bizarre storyline. With cues such as The Roof having to them a subtle nod to Ennio Morricone.

I was not going to include VIY, as so much has been written about this movie, but it would be re-miss not to mention it even fleetingly, it is without a doubt one of if not the most popular Russian Horror film to be produced, it appealed to audiences around the world and not just its native Russian viewers. The story has been transferred to both the small screen and the silver screen on numerous occasions, but it is the 1967 cinematic version of this popular tale that is certainly the go to work. So briefly, Viy, (Spirit of Evil or Vii) was directed by Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov.

The films screenplay was based on the story of the same name by author Nikolai Gogol, which was adapted for the screen by Yershov, Kropachyov and Aleksandr Ptushko.

The musical score was by Karen Khachaturian who was the nephew of the great Russian/Armenian classical composer Aram Khachaturian and the cousin of the famed conductor Emin Khachaturian. The music is mysterious, otherworldly, eerie, and suitably atmospheric, and underlines supports and gives greater momentum and depth to the story as it unfolds on screen. The music for VIY has to it a style and sound that is fully symphonic and the style employed by the composer is very much akin to the style of the composers music for the concert, as in his Symphony number one and various ballet’s such as Cipollino.

The film also contained highly effective special effects which were at the time ground-breaking, plus the camera work and use of both colour and black and white photography proved to be both harrowing and memorable. Gogol’s story has popped up in various guises and has also formed the foundation for many other stories and movies, most recently it was used as the basis for the Russian fantasy/adventure movie The Iron Mask which starred Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jackie Chan and Charles Dance.

The 1967 version is in my opinion however still the best version, and in case you are not familiar with the story, it involves a young priest who is ordered to preside over the wake of witch in an old wooden church that is situated in a remote village. He is instructed to stay in the church for three nights alone with the corpse of the Witch, with only his faith and trust in God to protect him.  

To a Polish production now and from 1973, The Hourglass Sanitorium, was directed by Wojiech Has. And contained an effective musical score by composer Jerzy Maksymiuk.  Maksymiuk, was born in 1936 in the Polish city of Grodno, which after World War II was placed inside the borders of Belarus. The composer’s family were farmers and had no musical connections or aspirations. They moved to Bialystok during world war ll to escape the oncoming Russian army. His parents divorced when he was fifteen. Maksymiuk began to study music in Bialystok and then later relocated to Warsaw, where he continued his musical education and graduated from the State Academy of Music. His musical training included   classes in playing the piano, composing, and conducting. Maksymiuk was introduced into the world of films by his cousin, director Czeslaw Petelski, who gave him his first job in the business.

For over thirty years Jerzy Maksymiuk was the composer and/or conductor of nearly one hundred Polish films. He is probably best known in Poland as well as abroad as an extremely gifted and hard-working conductor. He was responsible for creating and establishing the Polish Chamber Orchestra (Polska Orkiestra Kameralna).  But, after working as the orchestra’s conductor for some thirteen years, he was later appointed the conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra based in Glasgow. A post he held for a further thirteen years.  Józef visits his dying father at a remote mental institution, where time itself doesn’t seem to exist, and the line between dreams and memories becomes indistinguishable.

The film depicts its protagonist, Jozef (Jan Nowicki), traveling through a dream-like world, taking a dilapidated train to visit his dying father in a sanatorium. When he arrives at the hospital, he finds the entire facility has gone to ruin and there is no one there that is taking charge or overseeing things, many of the patients going uncared for. Time appears to behave in unpredictable ways at the sanitorium, and often brings back to life vivid memories of the past, which are at times hard to distinguish from real events.

Necrorealism, is often a word linked to the Horror genre, so what is the meaning of Necrorealism? Well it says, it means to focus on dark humour and the absurd, with specific attention on death, destruction, and transformation. Which is something that the 1990 Russian movie The Vampire Family or СЕМЬЯ ВУРДАЛАКОВ,does successfully. The films storyline concentrates on a young reporter who makes a journey into the Russian countryside, where he hopes to write about the fantastical stories that are so often linked to the area.

The film is based upon Leo Tolstoy’s The Family of the Vourdalak and filmmakers Gennadiy Klimov and Igor Shavlak do an excellent job directing and bringing to the screen a tale that is filled with tension and apprehension, the way in which they build the drama and also the suspense is uncomfortably  stunning and watching the movie one does I have to admit start to feel a little uneasy. The musical score was written by composer Vladimir Davydenko who is still writing today but focuses mainly on scores for TV shows and mini-series in Russia.

Lyumi is probably one of the most obscure horror movies made during the final days of the old Soviet Union.  It was directed by Vladimir Bragin, and is I suppose a Horror/comedy affair, a film which basically reworks the story of Little Red Riding Hood but maybe in a more macabre and contemporary fashion, this time the character of the big bad wolf is seen in the form of a half man half wolf character, who terrorises motorists who he stalks in the Russian countryside. Its probably a film that we should not take that seriously, it is simply good clean comic horror, if there is such a thing. It’s an interesting and entertaining movie however, and looks at not if werewolves exist, but instead examines the stories and also the way in which cinema and writers have portrayed them. It is I have to say eighty percent comedy and twenty percent horror, but this is I think mainly due to some of the hammy or wooden acting within the movie, Lyumi, is in essence a parody of cinemas portrayal of the wolfman.

The musical score is by Venyamin Basner who was born on January 1, 1925 in Yaroslavl, Yaroslavl Governorate, RSFSR, USSR as Veniamin Yefimovich Basner. He was a composer who began to write music for film and television in the mid 1950’s his first documented score being for the 1956 war drama The Immortal Garrison. He was also known for his scores to Leningrad Symphony in 1957, Miroven Paren from 1972, and The Arrows of Robin Hood in 1975. He died on September 3rd,1996 in St. Petersburg just after completing his score for the comedy film, Vozvrashchenie “Bronenostsa”.

Russian or Eastern European horror movies, may not be that well known outside of their respective countries of production, but, these are quality movies, and also films that examine subjects and ponder tales of horror or witchcraft, rather than slash and inflict gruesome gratuitous gore upon their audiences their audiences. So, the thinking man’s horror?  Maybe! which can only be a good thing.    

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