Issue 68 (2020)

Pavel Sidorov: Quiet Comes the Dawn (Rassvet, 2019)

reviewed by José Alaniz© 2020

Post-Soviet Horror Cinema in Russia has tread a rocky road, to put it mildly.

In building their own national tradition, the Russians have struggled to incorporate the nearly non-existent legacy of the Soviet era, when the genre was almost wholly neglected – if not outlawed. Still, it seeped in here and there. The comic Gogol adaptation Viy (directed by Konstantin Ershov and Georgii Kropachev, 1967) provides a tantalizing glimpse of what a Russian horror cinema might have looked like, with its funny-scary wallowing in folkloric motifs, while Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Second Circle (Krug vtoroi, 1990) delves into the subjectivity of a traumatized man mourning his father’s corpse in a dark room – to unsettling effect. While neither is a conventional horror film in the Western sense, they could both give you nightmares.

rassvetSo, too, the Parallel Cinema films made by the Necrorealists Igor Bezrukov, Evgenii Kondrat’ev, Evgenii Iufit and others beginning in the 1980s, especially the “zombie” contagion film Papa, Father Frost is Dead (Papa, umer ded moroz, 1991)—though as underground works, very few people actually saw them. Not many flocked to take in Iufit’s post-Soviet films, either, like Silver Heads (Serebrianye golovy, 1998) and Killed by Lightning (Ubitye molniei, 2002)—both deliberately-paced psycho-philosophical exercises that mobilize sci-fi and horror tropes.[1] One could say much the same for Andrei I’s horror-inflected avant-garde documentary Engineering Red (Konstruktor krasnogo tsveta, 1993) and his sort-of Cronenbergesque Scientific Section of Pilots (Nauchnaia sektsiia pilotov, 1996).[2]

More mainstream fare, such as Nikolai Lebedev’s psychological thriller Snake Spring (Zmeinyi istochnik, 1997), capitalized on horror’s aestheticization of extreme mental states (for which some Western mental health advocates have excoriated the genre; see McDaniel). With Russia’s 2010s horror film wave,[3] the descendants of Ershov/Kropachev and Iufit decided mostly to chuck out the old stuff. The new rules: 1) mimic the West and 2) up the ante. To wit: the 2014 pseudo-adaptation of Gogol, Viy 3D (directed by Oleg Stepchenko; international title: Forbidden Empire).

I should note, though, that more original and independent-minded Russian directors continue to produce work that opens itself up to the genre in interesting ways, be it the body horror of Ivan Tverdovskii’s Zoology (Zoologiia, 2016) or the social-critique-by-way-of-spooky-urban-legend premise of Nadezhda Mikhalkova’s Cursed Seat (Proigrannoe mesto, 2018).

The Bride of Hollywood
By seeking to meld old and new, the production company 10/09, headed by Vladislav Severtsev and Sergei Ershov, has leaned into the Russian horror trend with such modest hits as Sviatoslav Podgaevskii’s The Bride (Nevesta, 2017) and his Queen of Spades: The Dark Rite (Pikovaia dama: chernyi obriad, 2015) as well as its sequel Queen of Spades: Through the Looking Glass (Pikovaia dama. Zazerkal’e, dir. Aleksandr Domogarov Jr, 2019). At the founding of 10/09 in 2015, Ershov announced the studio would “focus on national archetypes and mythology, revisiting it with the use of contemporary film language so that films it produces will also have international appeal” (Kozlov 2015).[4]

The strategy paid off with Netflix’s purchase of The Bride for streaming in Latin America (Anon. 2019). As co-producer Dmitrii Litvinov explained upon announcing Quiet Comes The Dawn’s production:

It’s hard for any films shot in your national language to compete with US product in distribution, and we think that horror and thrillers are the only genres in which Russian films can give Hollywood some kind of a run for its money on the international markets. Our experience with The Bride has shown that our entry into the international market was completely justified. Quiet Comes the Dawn is that new thing that foreign viewers are waiting to see from us … (Anon. 2019).

The producers chose the film’s script, by horror veteran Evgenii Koliadintsev,[5] based on a studio-run online competition (Anon. 2019). The first-time feature director, Pavel Sidorov, had previously made an action-packed music video, “Not Paris” (2018), for the popular rock group Leningrad. The predominantly young cast was made up mostly of unknowns. 

rassvetIf, as Volha Isakava writes, “horror provides an outlet for the re-appropriation and retelling of history” (Isakava 2014, 105), the fad in recent horror films East and West has especially involved family history and its traumas. Just as in Midsommar (directed by Ari Aster , USA, 2019), the plot in Quiet Comes The Dawn is propelled by a sibling’s suicide in the first reel, which launches the 20-year-old orphan Sveta (Aleksandra Drozdova) on a harrowing journey into her disturbed mother’s past. Looking through her dead brother Anton’s (Kuzma Kotrelev) effects, Sveta finds disturbing evidence of his obsession with demonology and nightmares, which she reasons may have led him to hurl himself from her upper-story kitchen. Since she has bad dreams too, and since, she learns, their mother was institutionalized in part for her belonging to a mysterious cult, Sveta decides to seek out Anton’s somnology professor Stepan Laberin (Valerii Kukhareshin ) for answers. Soon she enrolls in a sleep therapy session at the professor’s Research Institute of Somnology, an ominous structure shot most often from on high with drone cams. The film here pivots to a sort of hellish “escape room” scenario, in which Sveta and three other patients, all dreaming in tandem, must navigate the “upside-down” version of the institute as they help each other resolve their individual traumas. Such is the plan, anyway, until two patients (notably, the oldest) quickly turn on and try to kill everyone else. The youngsters, meanwhile, together try to survive monsters, frothing dogs, and their betrayers.

Loudly Comes The Yawn
Quiet Comes The Dawn has no shortage of problems, the most salient of which is that it is not a good film, let alone a good horror film. It does prove, though, that you may patch together innumerable horror clichés and images, throw in some inert performances, weak CGI, gratuitous jump scares, a screechingly annoying soundtrack and mediocre make-up, and at the end of it come up with a boring, trite waste of 90 minutes. In this respect, Quiet Comes The Dawn is the Mentos and Coke Experiment of cinema – with equally predictable results. Except of course the Mentos and Coke thing is actually entertaining.

rassvetPartly through what the film scholar Carol Clover coined the “final girl” trope (in her seminal 1992 monograph Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film), the genre has espoused an unevenly feminist vision that clashes with its more prurient aspects (e.g. the “final girl” who survives the slasher is often the one who stayed virginally pure while everyone else rutted freely). Revisionist takes such as the Scream franchise (USA, 1996) and Cabin in the Woods (directed by Drew Goddard, USA, 2011), famously, made light of such formulae.

Compared to them, though, Quiet Comes The Dawn seems retrograde, stuck in painfully outdated gender roles. Partly this has to do with the one-dimensional script, which makes its heroine a simple, flawless ingenue with absolutely no depth; Sveta’s such an infantilized, boring “good girl” that her name actually means “light” (did you catch that, viewer?). We never see Sveta working at, you know, a job; we never see her at college; we don’t know what she wants to make of herself; even whether she’s gay or straight. We first glimpse her at her 20th birthday party, blowing out the candles. In short, she seems not to have existed before the film’s first frame – or at least, she has always existed exactly as she is now (sort of the same thing). We do know she has a past, though, because she discusses it with Anton, who gifts her a book of children’s verse (see below).

Furthermore, even a good actor given only three facial expressions to work with (child-like wonder, concern and terror) would find the part challenging; Drozdova is not a good actor. In contrast, Dani in Midsommar is a bundle of anxieties, insecurities, pettiness and hang-ups (i.e., a human being), which Florence Pugh capitalizes upon with great nuance in her performance. In Sidorov’s film, the only independent-minded “modern” woman, Lilya (Anna Sliu), quickly deteriorates into a knife-wielding harpy intent on killing Sveta because she believes her responsible for her husband’s death. With her flashing blade, untamed blonde tresses and insane eyes, she even resembles Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (directed by Adrian Lyne, USA, 1987), until she gets her head repeatedly bashed in like “Katie” in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (directed by Quentin Tarantino, USA, 2019). Message received: stray too far from prescribed feminine comportment – virgin or mother – and face certain death.   

But the troubles run deeper, and go beyond even the film itself. The critic Efim Gugnin relates Sidorov’s failure to that of the whole genre on Russian soil; as he sees it:

Quiet Comes The Dawn, is, of course, not the worst horror film in the world, and probably not the worst made by 10/09. But through a viewing of it you can spot most of the problems facing Russian horror. The main problem is, oddly enough, paved with completely good intentions and, out of context, it even sounds rather paradoxical: Russian horror filmmakers are trying too hard to scare you. Yes, as a formal matter, that’s what horror is for, to make the viewer scream out, press themselves into the seat or, whatever, grab on to their neighbor’s arm in the movie theater. This is why the only good horror films are the ones in which all the horror, basically, is closely linked to style and plot; a clinical psychosis with some psychology or other. Quiet Comes The Dawn doesn’t understand this at all: if it has a “boo,” then it’s only for the sake of a “boo.” All the monsters are just monsters, while the plot twists obey only one law: the more action scenes where you can insert jump scares (skrimery), the better (Gugnin 2019).[6]

Anna Karina and The Russian Night
Reading the critical reception of Quiet Comes The Dawn, I found that it reinforced another of my chief impressions about the film: that it felt like a patchwork of many other movies. This in turn recalled one of my favorite 21st-century essays on cinema, Michael Atkinson’s “Anna Karina and the American Night,” in which he extols not narrative but what he calls the “fleeting visual proteins” and “particles of movie experience” – the individual shots that deliver the form’s most sensual pleasures. By this he means “the close-up with the unconscious eyelash flutter, the dawn light falling on a wet street, the woman’s hand moving to her mouth in a moment of panic, the fuzzy back-projection im­age of a city block long forgotten.” These moments or “cellular agents of sensual re­sponse and visual contact,” Atkinson contends, “provide us with the medium’s unspeakable, unquantifiable thrill ).”

rassvetThe problem, of course, is that many of these “visual proteins” have in large measure ossified into a lazy short-hand of lifted clichés (“swiping,” in comic book parlance). Poorly-made films such as Quiet Comes The Dawn thus constitute little more than a parade of blatantly stolen merchandise: shots, set-pieces, dialogue, whole personas cut and pasted from other sources. There is of course nothing new under the sun, but when virtually every element of a movie (from the lighting design to particular camera swishes) looks so familiar, the effect becomes quite distracting and anti-narrative in ways not dissimilar to Atkinson’s paean. In fact, cataloguing the pilfered goods may be the only fun to be had in Sidorov’s dreary work.[7] And so, together with other critics, I have assembled this crowd-sourced, incomplete list of swipes from Quiet Comes The Dawn:

In sum, Sidorov’s throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-hope-something-sticks approach comes off as essentially a postmodern collage of homages (to put it kindly). To make it anything more than that would have required a solid plot, fresh ideas, credible performances—anything —to anchor all the quotations. But as noted, Quiet Comes The Dawn has nothing of its own to offer.

Or does it?  

Post-Soviet Gothic
It turns out Sidorov’s cheap knock-off of a horror film has one saving grace distinguishing it from the Western product it so slavishly tries to ape: a post-Soviet gothic sensibility. This rears up ever so fitfully throughout the proceedings as a sub-theme, adding up to not much in the long run, but it’s there. These young characters, though often unaware of it, operate in a space defined and literally haunted by the Soviet past—an era they were born long after, and which they blithely presume they’ve transcended, but which keeps coming back to scare the hell out of them.[8

As a reviewer at Kinomania identified it (without using the term), the post-Soviet gothic manifests in two key culturemes. The first is Samuil Marshak’s creepy 1959 poem for children, Hushabye (Ugomon), whose stanzas Anton and Sveta recite together in her bedroom.[9] They still remember it from their childhoods. The older Anton would beg their mother to read it to him. Мodeled on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “Ole Lukøje” (1842), about the Danish Sandman, Marshak’s poem deals in part with a little boy, Anton, who insists on staying awake:

Everyone lies down to sleep.
The grown-ups and the children sleep,
Even the swallow and the elephant sleep,
But not Anton, only he doesn’t sleep.

rassvetThe child’s recalcitrance leads to a visit by Hushabye (Ugomon), a supernatural spirit who has its ways of dealing with troublemakers who won’t go to sleep. Ugomon, in short, is the Russian version of bogeymen the world over, who punish naughty children who won’t settle down to bed (like el Cucuy for Mexican-American kids).[10] Marshak’s refrain: “Sleep, my boy, don’t make noise, settle down” [literally: Ugomon take you])[11] takes on a chilling new life in a Putin-era context, like a vampire risen from the grave.

The second post-Soviet Gothic cultureme comes to dominate the landscape, swallowing our hapless young people whole: the Research Institute of Somnology itself, with its Brutalist Soviet architecture. The complex’s stark cement walls imprison them, its dark labyrinthine corridors terrorize them, its dour waiting rooms (with old-fashioned TVs) bore them to tears. When the dreaming quartet at first believes the experiment has failed, Kirill (Aleksandr Molochnikov ) even mocks the Sovietized cadences of the professor’s speech and huffs, “Maybe it’s just that in a broken-down Soviet institute nothing works”—the ultimate 20-something put-down.

A better film could do much more with the highly generative post-Soviet Gothic, as a framework for exploring the country’s undead 20th-century legacy, particularly in a time when —just like Stalin and Brezhnev before him—the current Russian leader is set to rule for life. It really is the gift that keeps on giving.[12]

At any rate, such a strategy might help future Russian horror films overcome Quiet Comes The Dawn’s missteps, which derive largely from its sniveling epigonism. Post-Soviet Gothic horror would also avoid the superficial Russianness of so many of these movies, well-described by Chip Crane (2019):

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. 

It is precisely when the Soviet zombie figuratively pops out from around a corner in the shape of Marshak’s “Hushabye” or when a towering concrete block blacks out the sky that Sidorov’s film feels the scariest, and most monstrous. 

rassvetQuiet Comes The Dawn botches just about everything else, so no surprise that it can’t stick the landing. It abruptly ends without real resolution, in a flagrantly transparent set-up for a sequel. Sure enough: the producers have plans not only for a prequel, The Cult (Sekt), but a whole line of films for their new “horrorverse” (Stupnikov 2019). Unfortunately that dooms this first film to anti-climax, to the sense that details are being held back for future movies (even if it makes no sense to do so in the plot of this movie) and to the feeling of an invisible hand reaching deeper into your pocket.

The film does have one pay-off, of sorts: as soon as the end credits roll, the soundtrack explodes with the unholy screech of “Fairy Tale” (Skazka) by the post-witch house experimental electronic duo IC3SPEAK.

Taking in Anastasia Kreslina’s unearthly wail, I thought, “At least, in this broken-down post-Soviet mess, something works.” 


Notes

1] Though in many ways very different filmmakers, Iufit was taught by Sokurov at Lenfilm in the late 1980s (see Yurchak 2008, 207).

2] The first “real” post-Soviet horror film, Albert Mkrtchyan’s Touch (Prikosnovenie), had the misfortune of premiering as the domestic film industry was collapsing in 1992.

3] Earlier 21st-century landmark works of Russian horror include Oleg Fesenko’s The Power of Fear (Ved’ma, 2006; also known as Evil), and Pavel Ruminov’s Dead Daughters (Mertvye docheri, 2007).

4] A strategy also pursued by other production companies, such as KIT with Podgaevskii’s Rusalka: Lake of the Dead (Rusalka. Ozero mertvykh, 2018) (see also Crane 2019).

5] Koliadintsev wrote the screenplays for the horror films Diggers (Diggery, dir. Tikhon Kornev, 2016) and Dislike (Dislaik, dir. Pavel Ruminov, 2016).

6] He goes on, even more cuttingly: “[T]he whole film looks like a collection of short film sketches—the ones where the characters spend about five minutes waiting for a jump scare, and in the end they get it. Tons of those come out on Vimeo every week” (Gugnin 2019).

7] I played a similar game in my review of the Russian superhero film Guardians (Alaniz 2017). Yes, I too am repeating myself, reader.

8] For more on post-Soviet hauntings, see Khapaeva 2009, Khapaeva 2017, and Dobrenko 2011.

9] The book which Anton gives Sveta bears an illustration by Mai Miturich from the 1959 edition of Hushabye. This depicts the spirit disconcertingly towering over a child in bed. I know of no edition of Hushabye with this cover.

10] There’s even a Hollywood horror movie about it: Cucuy, the Boogeyman (dir. Peter Sullivan, USA, 2018).

11] Marshak took the phrase “Ugomon tebia voz’mi” from Russian folklore. See Tereshchenko 2019, 166.

12] See Seifrid 1990 for a model discussion of how a Stalinist Gothic operated in Stagnation-era literature. 

José Alaniz
University of Washington, Seattle

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Works Cited

Alaniz, José. 2017. “Sarik Andreasian: Guardians (Zashchitniki, 2016).” KinoKultura 58.

Anon. 2019. “Rassvet (2019).” Ovideo.

Atkinson, Michael. 2008. “Anna Karina and the American Night.” The Believer (1 March).

Dobrenko, Evgenii. 2011. “Utopias of Return: Notes on (post-) Soviet Culture and its Frustrated (post-) Modernization.” East European Thought 63.2: 159-171.

Crane, Chip. 2019. “Sviatoslav Podgaevskii: Rusalka: Lake of the Dead (Rusalka. Ozero mertvykh, 2018).” KinoKultura 64.

Gugnin, Efim. 2019. “Otpusti menia, sonnik.” Film.ru (3 January).

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

Khapaeva, Dina. 2017. The Celebration of Death in Contemporary Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Khapaeva, Dina. 2009. “Historical Memory in Post-Soviet Gothic Society.” Social Research 76.1: 359–394.

Kozlov, Vladimir. 2015. “New Studio for Horror Films Launches in Russia.” The Hollywood Reporter (11 June).

McDaniel, Jamie. 2016. “‘You Can Point a Finger at a Zombie. Sometimes They Fall off.’: Contemporary Zombie Films, Embedded Ableism, and Disability as Metaphor.” The Midwest Quarterly 57.4: 423–446.

Seifrid, Thomas. 1990.  “Trifonov’s Dom Na Naberezhnoi and the Fortunes of Aesopian Speech.” Slavic Review 49.4: 611–624.

Stupnikov, Denis. 2019. “Retsentsiia: ‘Rassvet’. Spi, moi mal’chik, ne shumi, Ugomon tebia voz’mi.” Intermedia (25 January). .

Tereshchenko, Aleksandr. 2019. Byt russkogo naroda v 2 tomakh. Vol. 2. Moscow: Litres. 

Yurchak, Alexei. 2008. “Necro-Utopia: The Politics of Indistinction and the Aesthetics of the Non-Soviet.” Current Anthropology 49.2: 199–224.


Quiet Comes The Dawn, Russia, 2019
Color, 90 minutes
Director: Pavel Sidorov
Scriptwriter: Evgenii Koliadintsev
Cinematography: Ivan Burlakov
Cast: Aleksandra Drozdova, Kuzma Kotrelev, Oksana Akinshina, Aleksandr Molochnikov, Anna Sliu
Music: Garry Judd
Producers Vladislav Severtsev, Dmitrii Litvinov, Alyona Bogatkova.
Production Karoprokat
Release date: 31 January 2019

Pavel Sidorov: Quiet Comes the Dawn (Rassvet, 2019)

reviewed by José Alaniz© 2020

Updated: 2020