Exorcising the Devil: Russian Cinema and Horror
By Josephine Woll
This is a shortened version of a book chapter in HORROR INTERNATIONAL, edited by Steven Jay Schneider & Tony Williams, to be published later this year (2004) with Wayne State University Press (Detroit) as part of the "Contemporary Approaches to Film and Television Series".
KinoKultura is grateful to the editors for permission to publish this text.
For most of its history, Russian cinema excluded horror films. From the creation of a Soviet film industry, which occurred soon after the creation of a Soviet state, virtually until the dissolution of that state and, in some ways, the demise of the industry, Soviet studios produced many sorts of films, but no Cabinets of Dr. Caligari, no Nosferatus, no Psychos, no Diaboliques, Rosemary’s Babys or Exorcists, no Nights of the Living Dead or Invasions of the Body Snatchers or Carries. No vampires, no zombies, no multiple-personalities, no werewolves, no sociopaths with angelic faces, no terrifying hypertrophies of natural forces, no malevolent but mesmerizing flesh-eaters, no "crawling hands" or "murderous greenery" (Butler 58)…
Before turning to the reasons why not, let me outline some of cinematic horror’s most salient and consistent themes and conventions.(1) Horror emphasizes individual psychology, relying on a general feeling of isolation and claustrophobia (Butler 15), on a fear of the "uncanny" (Coates 5) and the supernatural, and on the perception that chaos is imminent (or immanent) and about to take over (Butler 72). Horror films of every provenance and time period typically involve the penetration of personal space, usually envisioned as houses, where staircases may separate safety from danger, sanity from madness - but may also admit their entrance (Derry 42-43). Violence frequently invades basements, dark and womblike; bathrooms, the most intimate domain; and bedrooms, the private haven where one can, theoretically, safely bare oneself physically and psychologically. The demonic can take the form of physical monstrosity, or of deformed psychology, or of man’s inhumanity against his fellow-man, or of a generalized malevolence of the universe – but horror movies posit and rely upon a fear of that demonic element, whatever shape it takes.
These features, by no means exhaustive, form contours recognizable to any Western filmgoer as characteristic of horror films, and indeed would have been recognizable to a Russian movie-goer in 1916, when both imported and domestic horror films were plentiful and popular. But the luxury of meditating pleasurably on lurking dangers from the safety of a theater seat vanished with the Bolshevik revolution.When the industry revived, and feature films resumed their place in the repertoire, the genre of horror had essentially disappeared from Soviet screens, and remained "in the closet" until the late 1980s. To borrow a term from psychiatry, the absence of horror films from Soviet cinema can fairly be called an overdetermined phenomenon. Ideological reasons account for it in the first place, followed by broadly cultural reasons and, finally, by practical cum aesthetic reasons.
THE EARLY SOVIET PERIOD
The Bolsheviks in positions of authority, Lenin first of all but also Trotsky and Commissar for Enlightenment Anatoly Lunacharsky, saw cinema first and foremost as a tool of education and propaganda. Nevertheless, they recognized the earning potential of the medium, and authorized the importation of feature films for commercial exhibition: action pictures, comedies and melodramas, but not the horror movies made by Germans, Americans and Scandinavians. Audiences adored the German adventure-film star Harry Piel; they adored even more swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks. Audiences loved Hollywood’s physical dynamism, its believable characters, and its routinely "kheppi end" (often scornfully transliterated into Russian rather than translated), and although critics spurned that happy ending as "alien to the Russian cultural tradition" (Youngblood Movies for the Masses 55), they found American movies of all genres except horror relatively acceptable ideologically, because of their "cheerful" and "life-affirming" qualities. Horror, clearly, did not fit the bill. They perceived it – whether rightly or wrongly - as an inherently reactionary genre,(2) and one that would not serve the need to create a totally new Soviet cinema, itself designed to abet in the creation of a totally new Soviet citizen in a new Soviet society.
Filmmakers too spurned horror. The leading avant-garde directors – Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Vertov - "believed that their obligation to society was fulfilled by creating the art of the future," and that audiences, transformed by socialism, would learn to enjoy and appreciate "hitherto ‘inaccessible’ art" (Youngblood, "The Return of the Native" 110). Horror’s emphasis on individual psychology over social and class phenomena ill-accorded with the revolutionary messages they wished their movies to convey.
The directors who chose to make entertaining movies, and who often adapted American generic paradigms to do so, mainly avoided horror, preferring melodramas, adventures and comedies, all of which could easily be situated within the emerging Soviet society. They still incurred critical and official wrath, especially from the "proletarian watchdogs," who considered this kind of cinema "tantamount to counter-revolution and […] no less dangerous than the ‘Formalist’ heresies preached by Eisenstein, Vertov and many others," (Youngblood, "The Return of the Native" 111), but at least Boris Barnet, Abram Room, Protazanov and a few others managed to make movies that people actually paid money to see.
The somewhat less doctrinaire Lunacharsky consistently advocated a revitalized form of melodrama as the best way to combine entertainment and propaganda (Cassiday 155-58 passim). He himself co-authored the script for one of the few "horror melodramas" of the 1920s, the sensational and enormously popular The Bear’s Wedding (1926), with a hero who metamorphoses into a prowling bear and mutilates his bride in their wedding-bed. The Bear’s Wedding is a "defiantly apolitical" variation of a vampire story, and "squarely in the pre-revolutionary tradition" (Youngblood Movies for the Masses 84); indeed, because of scenes depicting a 19th century feudal lord raping peasant women, it was deemed "too risqué for village people," and was banned from the countryside (Kenez 222).
THE STALIN YEARS
The strident rhetoric of 1927-1929 officially condemned foreign films as "stupid, trashy and profoundly harmful;" imports ceased and, late in 1928, foreign films were purged from film libraries. (Youngblood, Movies for the Masses 62). Attacks targeted American films in particular, since America – source of most imports - epitomized the worst capitalism could offer. Thus the wave of horror films Hollywood released after the introduction of sound (Dracula, Frankenstein, White Zombie, King Kong, all 1931), the time when "a distinctive national mythography and commodity [were] born simultaneously" (McConnell 26), did not penetrate Soviet borders.
Neither did the British pictures made just before and during the Second World War. During the wartime alliance, although a more relaxed cultural milieu prevailed, audiences saw relatively few Western films, mainly ones – like Sun Valley Serenade, first shown on Soviet screens in 1944 – that provided relief from all-too-real horrors. And after the iron curtain descended, at a time when Hollywood and the British studios grappled with "end-of-the-war, atomic-bomb anxieties" (Derry 17), Stalin’s final cultural pogrom effectively eliminated nearly all imports, except for the "trophy" films confiscated from the Germans and captured American films.
With the partial exception of the war years, the parameters of possibility within domestic Soviet cinema narrowed and ideological requirements multiplied throughout the 1930s, ‘40s and early ‘50s. Scriptwriters and directors continued to adapt to their own needs and circumstances both the narrative structures and visual patterns of several genres from the West, as they had in the 1920s, but perforce they avoided horror. The most popular films of the 1930s - Chapaev (1934), the Maxim Trilogy (1935-38) and the string of musical "comedies" made by Grigory Aleksandrov (Jolly Fellows , The Circus , Volga-Volga  and Radiant Path  - emulated Hollywood’s adventure films and its Busby Berkeley-style musicals, albeit with a distinct ideological twist.
Genre per se did not trouble the Soviet authorities, but with the exception of melodrama (which lost much of its sexuality and unconscious neuroticism when adapted to the Soviet screen), the particular genres typically identified in Western cinema discourse have little relevance to the generic categories ("production" films, with zealous and inspirational factory-worker protagonists in industrial settings; historical films; films about the countryside; films about young people…) used by the Soviet film industry to designate its products, and less still to the political organs that oversaw it. When Richard T. Jameson matter-of-factly writes that movies "belong to genres much the way people belong to families or ethnic groups," he really refers to the West. "Name one of the classic, bedrock genres – Western, comedy, musical, war film, gangster picture, science fiction, horror – and even the most casual moviegoer," he continues, "will come up with a mental image of it, partly visual, partly conceptual" (Jameson ix, cited by Altman 13). For Soviet viewers, images of stalwart officers and snarling villains whose conflict culminates in a shoot-out set against a landscape of open spaces and little human population, filmed in long-shots and panoramic vistas, call to mind a specific genre as clearly as they do to a Midwesterner. The Soviet version of that classic Western paradigm pitting clearly-designated forces of good against forces of evil, however, took the form of the "Soviet Civil War" film, a genre that produced many films of the 1920s (including Pudovkin’s masterful Storm Over Asia), the 1930s, and survived into the 1950s.
The genre of horror films, however, and the formulas that constitute its essence, contradict almost every major tenet of Marxist historical materialism, of Soviet doctrine, and of Socialist Realist dogma. The fears and anxieties underpinning horror films – of the uncanny or supernatural, of chaos, of the irrational - contravene a materialist philosophy that holds as self-evident the primacy of man as a social and rational being, who acts primarily out of motives of material interest, and whose alienation stems from specific economic and social conditions. Socialism would, in Marx’s view, "liberate all the powers latent in every human being, and develop his personal abilities to the utmost in the social context."(3) There’s not much room there for the murk of madness or for the "horror of personality" (Derry 17), for Freud’s conviction that human beings are essentially envious and that growing up within any social system "is necessarily a repressive process," becoming more so as "the advancement of civilization lays an increasing burden of anxiety on the individual’s sense of a guilty self" (Joravsky 235). The Soviet state had little use for the tragic view, and despite efforts by several Soviet Marxists to unite Marx and Freud, Freud’s writings ceased to be translated into Russian by the late 1920s, and "genuine discussion of Freudianism was swamped by one-sided denunciations" (Joravsky 217).
Nor does such a view accommodate the supernatural. The Party considered Russian peasant superstition – belief in, for instance, "dark forces" (tyomnaia sila) – no less retrograde than Russian piety, and the Party’s official artistic doctrine of Socialist Realism demanded positive heroes, men of action and utter selfless devotion to (political) cause, not inward-looking neurasthenics. (4) "In the Soviet Union […] masterful men knew that getting out of oneself, proving one’s worth in progressive social activity, is the practical answer to the sickly self-absorption of quitters and losers" (Joravsky 237).
Soviet cinema had its moments of horror, even during the 1930s and 1940s. Eisenstein, who borrowed for his own purposes the aesthetics of German expressionism and Kabuki drama’s counterpoint of sound and image, deliberately shocked and provoked his viewers, in Alexander Nevsky and even more in Ivan the Terrible, where Eisenstein transforms what is ostensibly an historical epic into something closer to a psychological horror film by blurring the lines between victim and victimizer, hero and monster, male and female. His use of extreme, even grotesque camera angles, memorably distorted and deformed shadows, vertical montage and color, all rely upon effects relating to the supernatural and horror, and speak of as well as to the repressed fears underlying them, his own and his putative audience’s.(5)
In general, however, the "monsters" that threatened the heroes and heroines of Stalinist cinema, that allowed viewers the luxury of feeling "safely frightened" (Prawer 48) belong outside the realm of the subconscious. Tangible and three-dimensional, the foes vanquished by stalwart Soviet citizens took palpable form: in peacetime, enemies of the people, foreign spies and their domestic accomplices, saboteurs and wreckers; in wartime, invaders, occupiers and destroyers.(6)
THE THAW AND "STAGNATION"
With the onset of the Thaw, Soviet cinema came back to life. Filmmakers made movies about the past and – to the great pleasure of Soviet audiences – about the present. At the same time, foreign films reappeared, though films of Western and Eastern Europe - typically films of social conflict and social protest - preceded and outnumbered British and American films. Neither ordinary Soviet movie-goers nor the privileged members of the industry who had access to a considerably broader range of films were able to see Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), or the movies made by Hammer Studio (such as Curse of Frankenstein, 1957), or American International Pictures’ cycle beginning with I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), or Corman’s adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe.
Not that they particularly wanted to see such films. After years of isolation, both filmmakers and film audiences sought movies with some connection to their own world, either to their cinematic traditions or to their Weltanschauung. Filmmakers were eager to turn their cameras on their own society, and found relatively little, technical sophistication apart, to borrow from grade B movies. When they did reach for American models, they preferred the allegorical possibilities of science fiction. Like many Russian and Soviet intellectuals, they turned their collective noses up at Hollywood, instead voraciously watching the Italian neo-realist cinematic masterpieces of De Sica and Rossellini, the films of the French nouvelle vague, the work of idiosyncratic directors with distinctive visions and styles, like Bergman and Kurosawa.
Furthermore, the anxieties that fuelled American and British horror films in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s had no real parallels in the Soviet Union. Despite the zigzags of the Thaw, most Soviet citizens regarded the dozen years between Khrushchev’s 1956 Secret Speech and the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia as a period of liberation. Rather than feeling the kind of alienation that expressed itself in much of American popular culture, Soviets felt for the first time in many years invested in their country and its evolution, and during the first part of the Thaw, until about 1961, quite hopeful about its future.
Consider the attitude toward science implied by American horror films of the 1950s and early 1960s. Society, menaced by natural disasters or by technology run amok, cannot turn to science or scientists for help: indeed, scientists prove helpless in averting the danger, if they do not (at their worst) actively abet it. Compare this with the cult of science that swept the Soviet Union in the late 1950s and early 1960s: by 1961, scientists had become the modern heroes of Soviet society, "a cross between magicians – modern alchemists – and cult-idols, ‘tenors’ of the twentieth century." (7) Most of Soviet society regarded the Soviet Union’s scientific progress with uncritical and unequivocal admiration, eagerly buying Fermi’s memoirs and rapturously welcoming back the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, whose April 1961 space flight turned him into an instant public icon.
Movies expressed more ambivalence toward science and scientists, perhaps because filmmakers, like other Soviet intellectuals, understood the risks as well as the thrills of scientific progress. Mikhail Romm’s Nine Days of a Year (1961) treats the destructive potential of splitting the atom. Yet one of its protagonists, unambiguously heroic, continues his experiments despite irradiation and certain death, unshakably convinced that scientific research is the best means to achieve long-term benefits for mankind, and his best friend, far more cynical about the possible perversion of science and about human beings’ inability to change, remains in the end a dedicated scientist.(8)
In a more commercial and extremely popular film, The Amphibious Man,(9) directors Gennady Kazansky and Vladimir Chebotarev mix more or less equal parts of science fiction, romantic adventure and exotic underwater photography to produce a political allegory, an oblique comment on Soviet history. Their film (based on a popular story by Alexander Belyaev) features a brilliant scientist, Dr. Salvator (Nikolai Simonov), who dreams of establishing an underwater society of equality and justice. The first and only citizen of his Utopia, his amphibious son, happily lives underwater; he knows no human except his father, until he rescues a drowning maiden and falls in love with her. Dr. Salvator is far closer to the Faustian scientist of political fantasy/science fiction "who pays too little heed to the consequences of his experimentation" (Prawer 39) than to the obsessed scientist of horror films: he belongs to the same pantheon as Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) in Lang’s Metropolis, Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers), Dr. Persikov in Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1925 novella Fatal Eggs. The film criticizes the political manipulation/perversion of science, but it never doubts science itself, just as it never doubts Salvator’s idealism or his love for his child.
In the 1960s and 1970s the USSR witnessed nothing like the social strife that wracked American society at the time, with assassinations, the polarizing Vietnam War, race riots and fissures along fault lines of age, race, politics, gender and class. American horror movies took on new life in these years, generally locating the source of horror inside the individual, sometimes in insanity or "possession," often in sordid, matter-of-fact and motiveless sociopathy, or in equally motiveless external forces of disaster, a malevolent universe whose "evil forces constantly undermined the quality of existence" (Derry 85). Brezhnevite Russia, by contrast, experienced material growth accompanied by ideological and cultural rigidity. Counter-systems to resist that rigidity arose: the black and gray markets in the economy, dissident intellectual and political undergrounds, several varieties of youth countercultures, etc. On the whole, however, it was a period of relative social stability. Its movies avoided ideology, preferring to examine "the realities of Soviet life" – including corruption - and personal destinies (Stites 169).(10) The "genre repertoire widened considerably" (Lawton 3), with the studios retaining melodrama as their mainstay but producing a large number of comedies, sci-fi, adventure pictures and political thrillers; most, however, were at best undistinguished, and few attracted large audiences.(11) Only one only movie from this period can even marginally be counted a horror film, Konstantin Ershov and Georgy Kropachev’s adaptation of Gogol’s Viy (1967), and although a dead girl rises from her coffin and summons all kinds of fantastic and wonderfully-realized spirits and demons (no surprise, with the brilliant master Alexander Ptushko in charge of special effects and animation), Viy – with its dated look, its simpering seminarian hero, and its lethargic pace - is unlikely to have frightened anyone.
In the roster of reasons for the absence of horror as a genre in Soviet cinema, the nature of Soviet reality is last but by no means least. Until quite recently Soviet life offered few of the accoutrements integral to the horror genre, most obviously those pertaining to space. As mentioned above, the violence in horror films typically invades personal space, especially the domestic spaces of hearth and home. But as Barry Keith Grant writes, "one cannot fear the violation of the boudoir’s privacy until one has […] a room of one’s own" (Grant 5-6). Few Soviet residents, rural or urban, had that luxury. Soviet city dwellers lived for decades in communal apartments, a circumstantial necessity turned into an "institution of social control" under Stalin (Boym 129). One family occupied one or at most two rooms, and shared bathroom, toilet, kitchen and corridor with neighbors. Even after construction of new housing and repair of old housing stock partly alleviated overcrowding, and families could move out of communal apartments into their own, they rarely had more than two rooms for living, dining and sleeping. The notion of violating private space makes little sense in that context. As Boym, who grew up in a communal apartment in Leningrad, recalls,
Once I was asked what were my earliest memories of growing up in the same room with my parents. The first thing I remembered was the texture of the curtain (port’era) that partitioned our shared room. The port’era of my childhood was heavy and dark yellow, with an ornamental appliqué. I remember overhearing the voices of my parents and their friends and the songs of Okudzhava and Vysotsky [two famous "underground" poet-singers of the 1960s], but most of all I remember the port’era itself. So much for the primal scenes (Boym 145-46).(12)
Indeed. There was plenty of horror in the Soviet Union, but with politics, aesthetics and cultural bias united in opposition, the one kind of horror there wasn’t, was horror on screen.