Issue 64 (2019)

Sviatoslav Podgaevskii: Rusalka: Lake of the Dead (Rusalka. Ozero mertvykh, 2018)

reviewed by Chip Crane© 2019

rusalkaOf all of the folk spirits that inhabit the Russian wilderness, perhaps the most terrifying is the Rusalka. The souls of unclean dead return to this world in the guise of beautiful maidens, Rusalkas, who were water spirits and equally at home in the forest. In some variants they were remnants of women who had drowned themselves after being abandoned by a lover, and who would return to drown him or his descendants. (They might tickle you to death as well!—see Ivanits, 1992). No wonder then, that a Rusalka is the subject of the latest film by Sviatoslav Podgaevskii, who, along with a fairly regular artistic team, has been busy producing one Russian horror film after another, including The Bride (Nevesta,2017), Queen of Spades: the Dark Rite (Pikovaia dama: Chernyi obriad, 2015), and the forthcoming Baba Yaga: Terror of the Dark Forest (Iaga. Koshmar temnogo lesa, 2019).

rusalkaThe film follows Marina and her fiancé, Roman, who are given the deed to an old lake house by his long absent father as an early wedding present. They plan to fix up and sell the house, which has been abandoned since Roman’s mother drowned there twenty years earlier. Before they do, however, Roman visits the house with his friend, Il’ia, who uses the trip out of town to throw a bachelor party. Put off by the party’s decadence Roman (a competitive swimmer) goes for a late-night dip in the lake only to be greeted by a Rusalka when he climbs back onto the dock. (We have been prepared for this moment by two prologues, one of which shows the death of Roman’s mother.) While in a trance, Roman kisses the Rusalka and she begins to haunt him. Roman and Marina are forced to uncover the secret history of the Rusalka (she had been betrayed by her lover 150 years prior) and how to dispel her (cut her hair) while the Rusalka claims Roman’s friends and family members one by one.

rusalkaVolha Isakava has described a double bind facing horror films in Russian cinema, a demand by audiences that they “be as good as Hollywood productions and strive for genre recognition and … convey a distinct local sensibility that would make these films stand out” as distinctly Russian (2014, 102). Rusalka: Lake of the Dead has arguably fulfilled both of these demands admirably. Technically, the film is well made and successfully deploys many of the conventions of the genre. Lighting and sound are used to create a creepy atmosphere. The camera is regularly deployed in such a way as to suggest we are viewing our heroes from the perspective of an invisible, yet malevolent force. The delirious anxiety of the protagonists is effectively transmitted to the viewer by a variety of techniques: alongside Marina and Roman we see things that aren’t there, as figures in the background shift in and out of focus we mistake the Rusalka for Marina and vice versa. But all of this is localized through the specifically Slavic figure of the Rusalka. Although in appearance she belongs to transnational horror cinema (she essentially looks like a blonde version of the ghost from Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998)or its Hollywood remake), numerous details—from the costume worn by her lover; to her name in her mortal incarnation; to the film’s insistent deployment of water as the means by which the heroes are terrorized, eliminating any doubt that this is a nature spirit—mark this film as specifically and unmistakably Russian.

rusalkaThe film’s Russianness is perhaps not the most significant way in which it diverges from its Hollywood counterparts, however. If modern horror is often marked by a willingness to trade in excess, Rusalka: Lake of the Dead notably rejects it at every opportunity. Many scenes seem poised to evoke the gratuitous sexuality of slasher films: in our first glimpse of Marina she is taking a shower, for example, and Il’ia brings a pair of strippers to Roman’s bachelor party. But in each of these instances the film takes an overtly prudish turn: Marina is wearing a modest bathing suit in the shower and Roman leaves the party before any clothes are removed]. The film eschews violence with a similar consistency. Whenever a character dies they are simply dragged beneath the water which (despite several clear underwater shots throughout the film) is always impenetrably murky in these scenes. They die invisibly bloodlessly, and more or less quietly. As a result of this conservative approach to the horror genre the film is (unlike its aspirational peers) strangely un-fun to watch (And I tried to make it fun! My first viewing was alone, late at night, with all of the lights in the house turned off, but despite the effort to set the mood it was a pretty dreary evening).

rusalkaIn this joylessness, the film fits well within a growing body of Russian films that more or less successfully reproduce the conventions of Hollywood genres while filling the film with local content. As I argued in my review (Crane 2017) of another film in this cohort, Nikolai Khomeriki’s The Icebreaker (Ledokol, 2016), there is value in reading the introduction of this content through Michael Billig’s arguments about “banal nationalism.” These films engage with the nation at the level of “aboutness” rather than thematically (to use the distinction introduced by Metter Hjort, 2000)—they are about Russians, living in Russia, speaking Russian, and (in this case) being terrified by Russian monsters. They are movies that help to constitute the nation by flagging these banal details, without saying all that much about the nation. Rusalka Lake of the Dead doesn’t really benefit from the kind of thematic exploration that Greg Dolgopolov subjected Russian vampire films to, for example; we should neither read the monster in the mode of Robin Wood (1985), where we see it as a threat to dominant social norms, nor in the mode of Dolgopolov’s inversion of this formula, where “social norms become monstrous and… the monster is threatened by normativity” (Dolgopolov 2013, 44). In this case, the monster—merely by being a Russian monster—is enabling the processes that allow those norms to exist in the first place by offering the imagined community of the nation, in Billig’s words, “a reassuring normality” (Billig 1995, 7).

Chip Crane
University of Pittsburgh

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Works Cited

Billig, Michael. 1995. Banal Nationalism. Los Angeles: Sage.

Crane, Chip. 2017. “Nikolai Khomeriki: The Icebreaker.KinoKultura 57.

Dolgopolov, Greg. 2013. “High Stakes: The Vampire and the Double in Russian Cinema,” in Transnational Horror Across Visual Media: Fragmented Bodies, ed. Dana Och and Kristen Strayer. London: Routledge.

Hjort, Mette (2000). “Themes of Nation,” in Cinema and Nation, ed. Mette Hjort and Scott Mackenzie. London: Routledge.

Isakava, Volha. 2014. “Of Monsters and Men: Horror Film in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia.” Canadian Slavonic Papers 56.1–2: 101–118.

Ivanits, Linda J. 1992. Russian Folk Belief. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Wood, Robin. 1985. “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” in Movies and Methods, ed. Bill Nicholas. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Rusalka: Lake of the Dead, Russia, 2018
Color, 87 minutes
Director: Sviatoslav Podgaevskii
Script: Natal'ia Dubovaia, Sviatoslav Podgaevskii, Ivan Kapitonov
Cinematography: Anton Zenkovich
Production Design: Aleksandra Fatina, Alisa Donik, Svetlana Gribanova
Music: Maksim Koshevarov, Aleksandr Maev
Cast: Viktoriia Agalakova, Efim Petrunin, Nikita Elenev

Sviatoslav Podgaevskii: Rusalka: Lake of the Dead (Rusalka. Ozero mertvykh, 2018)

reviewed by Chip Crane© 2019

Updated: 2019