from Horror International
Josephine Woll

... Within "mainstream" commercial cinema at least three movies of the last few years can legitimately be categorized as horror films: Oleg Teptsov's Mr. Decorator (1989), Sergei Vinokur's Vampire (1997), and Nikolai Lebedev's Snake Spring (1998) ... Vampire and Snake Spring situate their plots in contemporary provincial Russian cities: ... in the latter, a young teacher arrives in the provincial town and immediately falls under suspicion of having committed a string of murders.

Despite variations in plot, setting, and time frame, these films share certain characteristics. All involve images of doubling – a motif that has haunted the horror film from The Student of Prague to Solaris – to portray a variety of tensions: between tradition and modernity, between art and consumerism, between classes. All suggest a demonic universe in which nothing innocent can survive ... All follow the horror paradigm of the disruption of natural order, the threat to domestic/familial harmony, and all manipulate the border between order and chaos visually and thematically (... dead creatures prey on the living in Vampire and Snake Spring). All rely on repression, the dominant strategy of the traditional horror film, where what is repressed returns in condensed and displaced form to threaten and challenge and disrupt that which would deny its presence, most obviously and derivatively (from Hitchcock) in Snake Spring, whose villain, a prissy school secretary/psychopath, assumes the garb and outward identity of his next victim for each murder.

Snake Spring and Vampire belong to a group of movies made on tiny budgets, each an attempt to adapt genre formulas to post-Soviet Russian cinema and reconcile the specificity of a national culture with the requirements of a pan-European – or global – market. It is not easy. National cinematic traditions differ: the Soviet preference for psychological camera, artificial lighting, and slow pace contrasts with American genre cinema's tight storyline, suspense building, location shooting, fast-paced editing, and the ability to reveal a character in one or two big strokes. Moreover, the post-Soviet absence of consensus on values militates against successful genre pictures, since genre relies on common topics, plots, key scenes, character types, familiar objects, recognizable shots and sounds, as well as character relationships, image and sound montage.

Russian critic Igor Mantsov believes Russian cinema cannot yet produce wholly successful genre films because such films require an emancipated hero capable of autonomous action; the screen cannot supply what the society still lacks. During the Soviet period, he notes, ideological and social markers differentiated friend, enemy, Party member, patriot, and traitor, categories out of which grew cinema's dramatic fabric. Even though the Soviet Union no longer exists, Russian cinema is unable to show two distinctly different private worlds. ... Mantsov writes, "... Genre ... begins precisely at the point where the individual succeeds in separating himself from the social mass. ... In our context, no full-fledged genre is possible because the rule of ... sameness does not permit singling out the criminal and exposing the crime. Everyone resembles everyone else."

Thus, ... Nikolai Lebedev, director of Snake Spring, comments on the stifling atmosphere of the town (implicitly, the whole society) by presenting his killer as being much like the town's other residents, all of whom have passed through the local school and been "molded" by its terrifying director. Lebedev exposes a well-entrenched Soviet paradigm, that of the "wonderful school years": in this town, the school experience has deformed everyone, turned them into at least potential killers.

Mantsov points out that the sort of external detail that acts as a genuinely distinguishing marker in, for instance, Hitchcock films, is far less effective in a Russian movie. Jimmy Stewart can be forgiven for mistaking one woman for another in Vertigo (1958), given their unique clothing and hairdo. But outside of a handful of Russian cities, relatively little variation exists in Russian clothing even today. This it is absurd for Snake Spring to suggest that the heroine's checkered dress suggests her guilt, as if only she could wear that dress: in a Russian provincial city, everyone walks around in the same dress. "What is a nightmare in Hitchcock," Mantsov concludes, "is a commonplace in the Russian context." ...