Issue 24 (2009)
Vadim Shmelev: S.S.D. (2008)
reviewed by Olga Mesropova © 2009
Vadim Shmelev has previously directed two action thrillers Countdown (Obratnyi otschet, 2006) as well as Apocalypse Code (Kod apokalipsisa, 2007). The latter work, financed by the government-sponsored Foundation for Patriotic Cinema, has been savaged by Russian critics. Operating with a significantly smaller budget than his earlier films (S.S.D. reportedly was made for a mere $1.5 million), the director’s new project attempts to create the first Russian “slasher” film in the tradition of such Western classics as Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), and Wes Craven’s Scream (1996). While exploiting the highly formulaic conventions of the slasher (including the obligatory masked psychotic killer and youthful victims), Shmelev assimilates this horror film subgenre to Russian cultural paradigms. Most notably, the film’s “theme murders” are semiotically informed by the narratives of urban legends and horror stories that circulated widely in Soviet-era pioneer camps in the 1970s and 80s. In an explanation of his film’s title the director suggests several possible readings of the abbreviation S.S.D., including “Samyi strashnyi den’” (“The Scariest Day”), “Strashilki sovetskogo detstva” (“Horrors of Soviet Childhood”), and “Smert’ sovetskim detiam” (“Death to Soviet Children”; Popov). The latter variant, which perhaps best represents this Russian slasher’s aesthetic organization, alludes to a Soviet era horror story featuring a vehicle (bearing the license plate SSD that stood for “Smert’ sovetskim detiam”) that once cruised the streets of Soviet urban legends.
The film opens with a prologue that offers a nostalgic recreation of the 1984 Soviet pioneer camp “Forest Glade” (“Lesnaia Poliana”). Here, as was quite common at Russian summer camps in the 1980s, young pioneers listen to the camp’s leader’s horror story about a bus that features black curtains, a driver with a horse’s head, and decapitated passengers. As the camp kids listen to the scary yarn with rapt attention, another camp leader and her boyfriend are decapitated by a sickle-wielding killer wearing a horse mask. (The murder weapon of choice is perhaps all too reminiscent of Soviet symbolism). The plot begins to thicken when the viewers learn that one of the young pioneers in the camp has witnessed the murder. This experience so traumatizes the witness—as the viewer discovers later in the film—that it transforms him into a psycho-slayer.
After the film’s prologue, S.S.D.’s central story line emerges as the depiction of a fictional reality show called “Pioneerlager’” (“Pioneer Camp”), which is perhaps a reference to one of the most successful programs on Russian television since 2004, the reality show “Dom-2.” The show “Pioneerlager’,” consisting of five men and five women, promises a prize of one million rubles to the winning contestant. In line with the conventions of the youth-focused slasher genre, the selected participants of the show are college-aged people representing a broad spectrum of contemporary Russian youth. Among the characters we see the spoiled daughter of wealthy parents, a security guard from a Moscow night club, a high school graduate who has failed to pass her University entrance exams, a “Goth,” a computer hacker and his pregnant girlfriend, as well as an aspiring young actor who claims, in his own words to have been “in Tarkovskii’s…, no, Todorovskii’s film… But they cut me out at the last minute.” Lending a real touch to the fictional reality show within the film, the show’s participants are all played by relatively new and unknown actors, who could be plausible participants of a television reality show.
Together with their host, Alisa (played by Anfisa Chekhova, who happens to be the curvaceous and scandalous host of the real-life talk show “Seks s Anfisoi Chekhovoi”), the ten participants arrive at the deserted pioneer camp, “Lesnaia Poliana.” This space bears clear visual and sonorous markers of the Soviet era, including faded propaganda posters with slogans such as “We are faithful to Lenin’s Party” as well as Soviet pioneer hymns piped through the camp’s loudspeakers. The physical arrangement of this old Soviet pioneer camp quickly reveals itself to be the imposed and enclosed setting that is requisite for the conventions of the slasher. The contestants and their host soon learn that they are trapped in the camp as a voice over the camp’s speaker informs the group that the rules of the game have changed. Money is no longer the prize. The task now is to survive the night. Only the winner will escape with their life. Indeed, this announcement sets in motion a series of brutal murders as the “contestants” are, in the fullest sense of the word, “eliminated” one by one. Somewhat reminiscent of the popular Soviet era film, Stanislav Govorukhin’s Agatha Christie-based 1987 thriller 10 Little Niggers (10 negritiat, 1987) (in which the characters are murdered according to the dictates of a particular verse from a nursery rhyme), the first few murders parallel the modus operandi and gory details of horror stories from the pioneer camps’ folklore. (This catalogue includes a coffin on wheels, poisoned cookies, blue claws, and “pioneer kebab” [pionerskii shashlyk]). As befits the slasher genre, the film abounds with graphic visual scenes in which rabid dogs devour human flesh, bodies are decapitated, and corpses hang from walls as their blood drips into a pan. The sensation of fear is intensified by a computer-processed voice continuously telling children’s horror stories over the camp’s public address system. The suspense is enhanced as the film’s nonlinear, choppy narrative jumps back and forth between scenes in the camp, black-and-white video footage on the camp’s surveillance cameras, a television blackout (after one of the show’s contestants is murdered on live television), and “fast forwards” to scenes of police and investigators arriving at the camp.
Although S.S.D. initially follows the concept of “themed murders,” the director does not consistently develop this narrative trajectory. After the first four contestants are executed in a manner suggestive of pioneer camp horror stories, the film proceeds to anchor subsequent acts of violence in the conventions of reality television. At this point the camp’s loud speaker announces that the rules of the game have changed yet again. The contestants’ new task is to “vote off” the next victim. This appropriation of the structural pattern of a reality show could be interpreted as a broad—albeit trite—comment on the perversely volatile nature of reality television. Indeed, just like contestants on an actual television reality show, the young people quickly begin to bicker and plot against one another, while their host Alisa proceeds to condemn “ordinary” people who desire “celebrification” through television. Alisa questions exactly how “ordinary” these television show participants truly are. “Normal” people, she states, are not cast in these shows because “normalcy” does not appeal to the viewer and therefore does not “get high ratings.” While drawing further parallels between a reality television show and the frameworks of a slasher film, the movie’s psychotic killer turns out to be none other than the television producer responsible for the “Pioneerlager’” show. This character appears in the camp (now sans mask) and has also recruited “a mole”—one of the show’s contestants—to assist him in the murder spree. The producer’s partner in crime, a young man, who has become madly infatuated with the televised image of the host Alisa (whom he has never actually seen in the flesh), accepts the role in order to be near his “idol,” whom, not too surprisingly, he subsequently murders.
While Alisa’s slaying seemingly has a motive (she does not return the young lunatic’s affections), the balance of the film’s slaughter is devoid of any clear sense of cause and effect. It remains unclear, for example, why these particular contestants were selected as victims. Moreover, if the recreation of Soviet pioneer folklore is presumed to replace a conventional homicide motive, the film does not clarify how each murder is associated with a particular pioneer camp horror story. Furthermore, by abandoning the film’s realistic setting—where the main killer is ordinary, human, and professionally successful (even if psychologically troubled)—the director introduces another narrative level that suggests that supernatural forces are at the core of the film’s violent events. In one flashback scene the viewer discovers that the murderer-producer is the same young pioneer shown in the film’s prologue (witnessing a masked man murdering his camp leader). The flashback continues as the masked man asks the young pioneer/future television producer the cryptic question: “Can you also see HIM?” Apparently the mysterious “HE” has decided to choose the boy as his anointed instrument in murder and mayhem. After making his diabolical annunciation, the masked man consummates the transfer of evil energy by killing himself (with a sickle) in the boy’s presence.
The diabolical figure “HE” returns towards the end of the film after the reality show’s producer has supposedly managed to eliminate all of the participants save one, the aforementioned computer hacker’s pregnant girlfriend. Addressing the girl, the producer repeats the words used by the masked man of his childhood epiphany, asking her if she had seen “HIM.” The villain then informs the girl that the mysterious “HE” has “chosen” her. However, unlike his Soviet-era predecessor, the producer does not commit suicide and flees the camp, only to be murdered (with a sickle, of course) a few weeks later. Towards the end of the film we see two people leaving the crime scene (the producer’s car) where the producer has been murdered. One of the two individuals in question is “Pioneerlager’s” final, the female survivor. The other is her computer hacker boyfriend, whom the producer thought he had killed but who has miraculously escaped death. This circumstantial evidence would indicate that the youthful avengers have murdered the serial killer. Or have they?
Here the film’s narrative voice is assumed by a police detective who has been investigating the murders in the camp. As the detective questions the hacker and his girlfriend, he tells them that the producer had a functioning video camera in his car. The two suspects now know that everything that happened at the crime scene—just like their reality show—is now on tape. However, the detective promises not to show the crime scene tape to anyone because, in his own words, the producer “deserved what he got.” Nevertheless, the film’s denouement is open-ended. In the final scene the investigator shows the young couple a photo. While the camera does not show us who or what is depicted in the photo, the detective asks the youngsters whether they believe in demons and if they have seen “HIM.” In the film’s last shot the camera zooms in on the youngsters’ frightened faces as they stare at photograph. This leaves the viewer with at least a couple of questions. Did the mysterious “HE,” rather than the two reality camp survivors, eliminate the producer because the latter refused to kill himself? Or are the two young people about to inherit the mantle of the serial killer, presumably because they have seen the mysterious “HIM” (either in the producer’s car or in the photo)?
The critic might also have a few questions regarding the film’s various levels of malevolence. One might be tempted to judge the film as a transparent critique of reality television as the film takes the genre to its logical extreme. This then begs the question: Does the presentation of the megalomaniacal television executive indicate that evil emerges when individuals have too much power? Or one might ask, if “HE” represents some supernatural external force, does the film represent evil as a power totally beyond human control, presenting us with an endless and uncontrollable cycle of mindless violence? Or is the evil depicted in the film (with its link between the pioneer camp folklore and portrayal of contemporary violence) somehow a vestige of Soviet crimes? Setting these questions aside there is perhaps a more plausible reading of the film’s conclusion. In the tradition of Western slashers, the film’s ending leaves the door wide open for a sequel (or perhaps multiple sequels). Shmelev is currently working on another horror film entitled Shkola (School) in which, he promises, things will be even more vicious (Shmelev).
Iowa State University
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1]Shmelev’s use of children’s horror stories is not novel to Russian popular culture. In 1990 Eduard Uspenskii—the author of the famous Cheburashka and Prostokvashino stories—published a short novel entitled “Red Hand, Black Sheet, Green Fingers” (“Krasnaia ruka, chernaia prostynia, zelenye pal’tsy”) in the Pioneer magazine.
Popov, Alexei (Interview with Vadim Shmelev), “Spetsial’nogo ‘russkogo’ khorrora byt’ ne mozhet.” ProfiCinema 21 August 2008.
Shmelev, Vadim (interview), “Rezhisser S.S.D. ob”iasnil, pochemu v fil’me bol’she obnazhenki, chem raschlenenki”, Time Out 1-7 September 2008.
S.S.D., Russia, 2008
Color, 90 mins.
Director: Vadim Shmelev
Screenplay: Denis Karyshev, Vadim Shmelev
Cinematography: Oleg Kirichenko
Cast: Anfisa Chekhova, Evgeniia Khirivskaia (Brik), Dmitrii Kubasov, Stanislav Erdlei, Ekaterina Nosik, Artem Mazunov, Stanislav Shmelev, Ekaterina Kopanova, Ivan Nikolaev
Music: Dmitrii Dan’kov, Il’ia Lagutenko
Producers: Vadim Goriainov, Valerii Todorovskii, Il’ia Neretin
Production: “Ankor,” “Krasnaia strela”
Vadim Shmelev: S.S.D. (2008)
reviewed by Olga Mesropova © 2009