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No fear of being a horror pioneer

Pavel Ruminov believes Russian filmmakers must recalibrate Hollywood genres.

March 17, 2007|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — In a nation with a history of blood-soaked fields, icy Siberian prisons and leaders like Josef Stalin, it seems a bit curious when Pavel Ruminov, a young, gifted Russian filmmaker, mentions that his countrymen don't know how to kill monsters.

History is one thing, film quite another. Ruminov's new movie, "Dead Daughters," is -- partly by hype and partly by the vestiges of a former Soviet system that eschewed slasher meditations -- arguably Russia's first true horror movie. Ruminov's tale of three murdered sisters who rise from the grave with wicked vengeance is a dense, sometimes erratic whirl of morality, inner banshees and deadly darts that swarm across the screen like a hard silver rain.

Think Ingmar Bergman meets Brian De Palma while a trio of invisible Linda Blairs lurks and giggles at the next table. The movie is receiving mixed reviews, with the common complaint that it doesn't know what it wants to be; those hoping for blockbuster horror find the blood quotient too low and the premise too intellectual. The director believes filmmakers must recalibrate established Hollywood genres for a post-communist Russia uneasily balanced between widespread poverty and the wealth of new oligarchs.

"I've got nightmares that people want to watch 'Scream' and what they get is a film that's an enigma for them," said Ruminov, sitting in a screening room on a recent snowy Moscow afternoon, a scarf around his neck, his long fingers woven as if locked in battle. "It's rubbish, to be honest, when they say mine is the first horror film. I think it came up naturally because we never had the tradition of the horror genre in this culture. It was forbidden in Soviet cinema. Then we became part of the Western world, and we're still slowly turning that way. But we should be risky and brave in our moviemaking."

"Dead Daughters" is more about psychological torment than rip-and-slash horror. Three sisters drowned by their mother return from the dead. These unseen spirits hunt down their killer first. They keep on murdering, turning the world into a crucible for good and evil, showing mercy only if their potential victims avoid sin for three days. These laughing ghosts force eerie introspection for Vera and the other five victims.

Vera doesn't have to ponder for long; her quick demise arrives amid rattling kitchen utensils. Her friends, twentysomething Muscovites, are left to navigate a rainy landscape marked by communist-era apartment blocks. It is a compressed, almost sealed world. The friends, including a real estate agent, DJ and graphics designer, question how to beat the creepy game unfolding around them.

"Is it really hard not to do evil for three days?" asks Rita, the real estate agent, who ends up impaled by a playground rocket ship.

The $1.2-million film, high for a Russian production, is the color of steel and gray-blue, the camera work is jerky. But Ruminov is nuanced at capturing the turmoil bristling beneath the surface; montages of painted faces and spooky children, witnesses but also interlopers, are both sinister and lovely.

"There are two views about 'Dead Daughters' depending on the audience," said Moscow film critic Roman Kulanin. "The first is a great failure because many wanted a film like 'The Ring' or another Japanese or American horror movie. The second view is that Ruminov found a new voice in Russian cinematography. His film made a little revolution, bringing together the art house and the mainstream."

"Dead Daughters" is a "symbol of my generation," Ruminov said. "It's about me. I've lost my spirit. I know the enemy inside. It's very personal .... I was nothing coming from nowhere and I was trying to make a movie to put myself on the map."

The director's other films include "Deadline," a comedy made for $25,000. His yet-to-be-released "Silent Man" follows a lonely Web designer unnerved by an anonymous letter announcing that "people will die."

Coming of age after the collapse of communism, Ruminov, 32, and other young directors entered harsh artistic times -- the film industry had lost its state subsidies and by the mid-1990s Moscow had only a few modern movie screens as pirated videos from the West became the viewing of choice.

"In terms of genre filmmaking, we're at the beginning. We lost the Soviet moviemaking system and its structure," he said, adding that communist-era films dealt mainly with "a strong humanistic core." He added: "So now we need to build something new, but I don't think producers are hungry enough to look for new filmmakers."

Perhaps today's scripts are less bone-rattling than newspaper headlines. Russia has a seemingly endless catalog of real-life sinister fairy tales: bankers gunned down, former spies poisoned, crusading journalists murdered. And despite a country with so many billionaires, money has not flowed into moviemaking and there are only a few studios capable of producing technically advanced films.

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