Issue 31 (2011)

Oleg Assadulin: Phobos: Club of Fear (Fobos: klub strakha, 2010)

reviewed by Jeremy Morris © 2011

fobosPhobos follows the path of least resistance in cutting and pasting stock ideas, frights, dialogue and pretty much anything you can care to remember seeing in a half-dozen American teen-horror films from the last decade or so. It lifts and inserts these generic elements so slavishly and unthinkingly that little remains for the viewer but to unfavorably compare the film with the much more inventive and accomplished US movies of this type such as Final Destination (dir. James Wong, 2000), Scream (dir. Wes Craven, 1996) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (dir. Jim Gillespie, 1997). Essentially the director and script writer are trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole. The film fails to move beyond stubborn imitation of culturally distant tropes, even when the Russian setting and characterizations would have allowed an interesting hybrid to develop with its own distinctive Russian aroma—as, arguably, was achieved with Night Watch (dir. Timur Bekmambetov, 2004). Even the interesting psychological concept of characters’ fears becoming embodied as an active supernatural and predatory force is not original and was given much more shocking treatment in Event Horizon (dir. Paul Anderson, 1997).

The latter comparison—with a US film that was average in terms of horror, and middling as a thriller only indicates the main problems with this very pale attempt at the genre; Phobos isn’t at all scary and has zero thrills. It also features a cast of unlikable and unbelievable youth types, again making the film pale into comparison with the very profitable “teen-horror” genre from which it is derived. Even in the least compelling of such movies there is usually at least some attempt at creating a recognizable backdrop of formative angst, camaraderie and sexual tension. It should be said that this is not the fault of the young actors, who do their best with a woefully underdeveloped plot, terrible script and poor direction. Nor is the modest (reportedly $1.5m) budget any kind of excuse for this lazy, formulaic and humorless attempt at a film. Indeed, given the easy production choice of a setting underground in a bunker complex, quite how the producers managed to get through this money is difficult to understand. In the last ten years many filmmakers, working out of cinematic traditions as diverse as those of Italy, Spain, UK and notably SE Asia have created compelling and scary or psychologically thrilling films with similarly limited amounts of cash.

fobos“Phobos” is the name of a nightclub in a disused Moscow bomb-shelter. Roma, a neurotic chancer is given the job of renovating it by the “boss” Zhenia, an oligarch’s spoilt son. Roma, after pocketing much of cash lavished on the club, employs Sasha, the hero and romantic lead of the film as foreman. Also present are Vika—a goth, who helped inspire the dark design of the club; Iuliia, Zhenia’s reluctant girlfriend; and Ira, Roma’s suitably-matched hysterical girlfriend. When the wannabe DJ and drug-user “Mike,” turns up and goes into a storeroom to “powder his nose,” he presses a large red button, activating a lock down and trapping the seven characters inside. Soon it becomes clear to the audience that the club is inhabited by a supernatural force intent on killing the cast. Equally quickly relations between all those trapped break down. The club connects to a secret underground complex used to experiment on and then execute prisoners during the Stalinist period. It is through this maze of tunnels and rooms that the cast attempt to escape to the Moscow Metro which they believe is close by. After many brushes with death, they realize that their own deepest fears are hunting them; fears that have been embodied by the terrible history of the bunker. As they near the exit, despite having confronted their fears as seemingly the only way of overcoming the spirit of Phobos haunting them, they are all abruptly killed, except the romantic leads Sasha and Iuliia. In a variety of not particularly scary, gory, or inventive deaths, the five cast members are dispatched within five minutes of screen time. Just as the leads are about to die Iuliia wakes up. It was all a daydream. She realizes that she must leave Zhenia for Sasha (whom she hasn’t yet met at this point given the whole film is a flash-forward).

fobosIt is difficult to know where to start in detailing exactly where this film goes wrong. Let’s start with the horror and “thrills.” A genuine jump-out-of-the-seat shocker has to spend time building up suspense and rationing its jolts. Phobos decides that it can crank up the volume, cut to a rat or a falling pipe and induce some kind of Pavlovian reaction in the audience. As with everything else in this film—all the shocks are telegraphed well in advance. There simply is no sense of dread, or anything else for that matter. We get a minor character killed reasonably bloodily near the beginning, but after that the threat level is minimal. It really beggars belief that however lazy the script writer and director were in copying the conventions of US teen-horror they didn’t get what is most important in these films—a steady supply of grisly deaths, a clear sense of impending doom, but at least some inventiveness to maintain suspense and keep the audience guessing as to who is going to catch it in the neck next.  The production qualities are largely good—we are treated to a nice period set with khaki colors, portraits of Stalin and vintage copies of Ogonek, but this is then left completely unincorporated into the plot and action. A genuinely creative and compelling script would have drawn on such a setting as a potential horror goldmine.

assadulinScript and characterization have not been developed beyond story-board cliché—this is really what makes this project stillborn. The characters and their lines are simply sub-Scooby Doo: “Let’s split up into two groups,” “What if there is something that is feeding on our fears?” Zhenia is impossibly vile as the rich daddy’s boy; DJ Mike schizoid; Ira’s role is simply to scream for no particular reason when the plot gets bogged down; the romantic leads have virtually nothing to do or say apart from pout at each other. The dialogue is simply so bad it is funny. These twenty-somethings are at each others’ throats most of the time but seem to have only two modes: impossibly over-inventive demotic speech (sans taboo words of course!), or petulant pop-psychologizing. Every line feels forced. The script writer tried so hard to replicate youth speech that he created a ridiculous parody of it. The absence of mat just draws more attention to this as the script earnestly searches for yet another substitute for four-letter words.  

The one particularly incisive online reviewer of Phobos sums up well the essential issues: the film is neither psychological thriller nor horror and was probably destined to fail at the script-writing stage; there is, inexplicably, zero exploitation of the potentially chilling Soviet setting; Fedor Bondarchuk seems to have a reverse-Midas talent for turning everything he touches into cinematic brass. [1]

Jeremy Morris
University of Birmingham

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Notes

1] User: IvKos, “otpravit’ v ssylku i zapretiti’ zanimat’sia kino…’, KinoPoisk.ru, 27 March 2010.


Phobos, Russia, 2010
78 mins, color
Director: Oleg Assadulin
Script: Aleksandr  Shevtsov
DoP: Aleksei Rodionov
Composer: DJ Gruv
Cast: Petr Fedorov, Nikita Bychenkov, Aleksei Vorob’ev, Agniia Kuznetsova, Renata Piotrovski, Tat’iana Kosmacheva, Timofei Karataev
Producer: Fedor Bondarchuk, Dmitrii Rudovskii
Production: Art Pictures, Taska Productions

Oleg Assadulin: Phobos: Club of Fear (Fobos: klub strakha, 2010)

reviewed by Jeremy Morris © 2011

Updated: 12 Jan 11