Liubomyr Kobyl'chuk: The Pit (Shtol'nia, 2006)
reviewed by Svitlana Krys© 2009
The Ukrainian film industry encountered numerous obstacles in the last decade of the 20th century, not all of which were of an economical nature. As a result, many of the films produced in this period remain virtually unknown to Ukrainian audiences. Larysa Briukhovets'ka, a noted Ukrainian film critic and publicist, refers to such films as “concealed” works of art (Briukhovets'ka 2003: 9).
The dawn of the 21st century saw the attempt to revive the traditions of the Ukrainian poetic cinema in Oles' Sanin’s Mamai (2003). It also brought forth efforts to produce art house films, such as Kira Muratova’s and Oksana Bayrak’s. There were also endeavors to produce mainstream feature films based on contemporary political events, such as Oleksandr Kirienko’s Orange Sky (Pomarancheve nebo,2006), as well as erotic melodrama (Robert Crombie’s Sappho [Safo,2008]).
In his debut project The Pit (Shtol'nia,2006) —ambitiously defined on the cover as “the first Ukrainian thriller”—the young Ukrainian director Liubomyr Kobyl'chuk fills in another niche, namely that of the horror genre. By making good use of the recent fascination with Gothic discourse in the Ukrainian literary market and pop culture, his film explores one of the typical directions of horror lore (especially as it is developed in contemporary spooks from Hollywood and Japan)—that of an unknown evil, which lurks beneath the surface of a mysterious archeological dig and is unearthed during excavations. The movie’s apt advertisement line “some things are better left unfound” (ie rechi, iaki ne mozhna shukaty), its DVD cover, depicting a mystifying shadow of a creature, clad in medieval garb, as well as the movie’s title, written in an ancient script, apparently soaked in blood—all work together to predict the upcoming frisson.
The film opens with a short historical introduction, presented in a cartoon-like setting that features pictures, which change on parchment manuscript leaves and are accompanied by a behind-the-scenes voice. The producers might have opted for this mode of rendering background information on account of a low budget, which did not permit the reenactment of scenes from the past. Using a storyline from the Primary Chronicle, the voice narrates about the acceptance of Christianity by Prince Vladimir of Rus' in 988 and the abolishment of ancient pagan rites. The introduction also focuses on depicting Perun—the god of thunder and lightning—as an evil, blood-thirsty deity, whose statue is deposed and dragged down into the river. The last line leads viewers to believe in the existence of modern-day followers of an ancient Perun cult and sets the mood for the approaching encounter. Such an introduction firmly situates The Pit within the genre of “coven cinema,” which depicts “witchcraft and [/or] modern Paganism” (Cowan 208), as exemplified by The Wicker Man (1973, remake 2006). Douglas E. Cowan notes that such movies “explore a variety of unseen orders that flourish just beneath the surface of late modern… society and that, in some cases, bridge the gap between the dangerous religious Other and the people next door” (Cowan 209).
In the case of Kobyl'chuk’s The Pit, a similar gap is bridged when five archeology majors—Mal'ok (Oleksii Zabiehaiev), Katia (Ol'ha Storozhuk), Viki (Svitlana Artamonova), Bita (Serhii Stas'ko) and Den (Pavlo Li)—set out to explore the wide catacombs that surround Kyiv. They do so in the best tradition of the teen horror genre with its usual focus on field research, as most famously represented in The Blair Witch Project (1999). According to the preliminary investigation of their professor, Perun’s effigy was hidden in the catacombs during World War II, to protect it from Nazi smugglers. When the unnamed Professor (Mykola Kartsev) mysteriously disappears one morning, the students decide to descend into the pit on their own, driven by curiosity greater than the voice of reason, which instructs them to wait for the supervisor. This action sets in motion various terrifying occurrences, such as the lost cell phone signal, the lack of food and provisions, and the disappearance of a map, all of which increase the psychological tension among members of the group. The students are nervous to begin with, because they fear being in an unknown, dark place. Their emotional distress is intensified even more by the fact that they cannot find their way back to the entrance. I should note at this point that the movie cast covers the spectrum of teen horror stock characters. Thus, we have a leader or a big guy, a rich boy, and a less popular young man. The latter, Mal'ok, is at first portrayed as the laughing stock of the group, but later turns out to be better prepared for the expedition than the others. As for the women in the crew, the two actresses represent opposite personalities. The brunette Viki quickly succumbs to the psychological and claustrophobic horror of being inside the pit and dies. The blonde Katia, however, is brave enough to go through the ordeal and survives. She is also shown to sympathize with the outcast from the very beginning.
While inside the pit, the students soon begin to sense the presence of the terrifying Other, both in trifling occurrences (such as the disappearance of the signs, which Mal'ok placed on the wall to mark their progress) and more frightening ones (when the two members of the group—Den and Viki—die and their bodies vanish without a trace). Having mistaken the appearance of the mysteriously clad person at the end of the tunnel for the killer, the remaining three students kill their Professor, whose absence from the archeological site is finally explained by a note, found in Bita’s pocket (yet another victim). Two survivors, Mal'ok and Katia, finally learn that they are being followed by practitioners of the pagan cult. This happens when Mal'ok forms the word “trieba” [victim] out of the random Old Church Slavonic letters on the walls of the pit, written with blood. Later he and Katia face the mysterious being who has been attempting to kill them. This turns out to be none other than their basketball couch (played by V’iacheslav Vasyliuk), who is introduced only briefly at the beginning of the movie in the opening scene, in which the students play basketball before their trip. Mal'ok and Katia win the battle with the coach who, being one of the few remaining pagan priests, tries to sacrifice them both on Perun’s altar. The two students manage to get out of the pit immediately before it explodes.
The Pit has provoked a wide range of critical responses, both positive and negative. Three reviews, published on the pages of the main Ukrainian on-line film portal KinoKolo, recognize it as an important socio-cultural phenomenon and as an early example of commercial, non-art-house genre films in Ukraine. As Serhii Trymbach observed, the film is deprived of any of the political or ideological subtext that surfaces in some other examples of commercial projects in Ukraine. Critics have also praised its exploration of the horror genre, which has long been neglected in the history of Ukrainian cinema, because it was regarded as a low art, unworthy of attention. The reviewers unanimously admired the fact that the movie is shot completely in Ukrainian. Indeed, the language issueis raised very subtly in Kobyl'chuk’s project. The fact that the cast speaks “live” teenage Ukrainian, with its colloquialisms, jargon, and occasional swear words, rather than an artificial bookish language, forebodes a new stage in the life of Ukrainian cinema. The Pit undoubtedly promotes the usage of Ukrainian and popularizes it among teenagers. And there is no better place for such a practice than a popular teen horror flick.
Among the negative features, noted by the film critics, I should name the frequent accusations of plagiarism and the accumulation of horror clichés (Sakhaltuiev). Indeed, The Pit is often compared by critics and viewers alike to the British teen horror The Hole (2001), both in terms of the choice of location, plot details, cast personages and the accumulation of psychological suspense. However, Liubomyr Kobyl'chuk and Oleksii Khoroshko, the creators of the movie, responded that the development of the horror genre in Ukraine needs to be informed and inspired by various North American, European and Japanese horror movies. Thus, their film offers ample intertextual parallels. Another critique concerned the deficiency of horror effects in the movie (e.g., one reviewer laments the lack of gory scenes, such as those, found in The Texas Chain Massacre, 1974, remake 2003). According to various reviews, this fact detracts from the overall frightening outcome of the film and even gives it an amateurish tint. However, one must bear in mind that Kobyl'chuk and Khoroshko identify their movie as an adventure thriller with elements of teen spooks, rather than as a full-fledged horror phenomenon. In fact, the movie borrows from various genres, instead of limiting itself to just one.
Nonetheless, there are some criticisms with which it is difficult to disagree. For example, the movie is shot as if in a vacuum, which proves to be its biggest weakness. Indeed, the action takes place fully inside the pit and seems at times superficial and torn away from reality. In one of the interviews, Khoroshko mentions Hitchcock’s suspense as one source of inspiration. Unfortunately, the movie lacks one of the main elements of Hitchcock’s thrillers, namely his “interest in depicting the fascinating psychological depths of human beings during periods of acute tension” (Hare 6). The characters in The Pit are psychologically underdeveloped and clichéd, with not enough dialogues and background information to fully render the terror that seizes them upon the realization of being literary ‘buried alive’ inside the pit. The supporting historical background is used only sporadically, without being woven into the plot. The viewer learns very little about underground pagan practices in modern times (cf. the intricate portrayal of the ancient Celtic rites in The Wicker Man, which assists in accumulating suspense), or about the reason why the idol has been hidden inside these very catacombs and what led the students to embark on the expedition. As Oleksii Sakhaltuiev aptly notes,
Each such (horror) movie must have at least some zest. Here it is present, and quite substantially. Old catacombs. Echoes of the World War II. Bloody cult of the ancient pagan deity Perun. In other words, it could be a very interesting and unique promotion of the Ukrainian cultural values and monuments. However, the problem arises from the fact that all these elements lie only on the surface and in no way are played up in the movie. The local lore could have been made the trump of the story; however, the movie does not incorporate it at all. No effort is made to inscribe the plot into contemporary reality, to let a bit more ‘air’ into the frame, to introduce one or two local scenes. All we see on the screen is an absolutely superficial world, torn away from the (Ukrainian) reality and inhabited by a handful of flat characters.
The major disappointment is the portrayal of the coach as pagan priest and evildoer. To my mind, his character is the least developed in the film and, simply speaking, very plain. The movie does not allow the viewer to enter his mind and to at least understand his motivation in luring these particular students into the pit to be sacrificed. This contrasts with Hitchcock’s intricate investigation of the psychopathic killer’s personality. The film’s shortcomings stem from the fact that Kobyl'chuk was simultaneously a director and a co-script writer, whereas Khoroshko performed as cameraman, producer and a co-author. Each man attempted to take on too many tasks. As a result, the movie visibly suffers from the lack of a more subtly developed plot and, altogether, a more professional approach.
Such criticism notwithstanding, The Pit is a revolutionary step, leading Ukrainian cinema out of its art-house realm into the world of pop culture and feature filmography. It has flaws, not the least of which result from the low budget and the lack of experience among the young crew. However, The Pit is one of the first filmic attempts to satisfy the growing demand for Ukrainian full-fledged commercial films. As such, it deserves praise. I would also like to point its value in the North American classroom. The film can be a great addition in courses, devoted to Ukrainian and/or central and East European cinema. It also lends itself well in the Ukrainian language classroom. Thanks to its English subtitles, The Pit can be easily shown to audiences with a very basic knowledge of Ukrainian. For more advanced speakers, it might serve as an introduction to contemporary Ukrainian, especially as used by teenagers, with whom university students can easily identify. It will certainly serve as a great topic for discussion about its similarities and differences with analogous Hollywood horror flicks.
Svitlana Krys, University of Alberta
I would like to thank my supervisor, Prof. Natalia Pylypiuk (University of Alberta), for editing the draft version of this review.
3] “There are strong indications that commercially-made films produced by mainstream studios start appearing in Ukraine… One of the first examples of such films is Orange Sky by Oleksandr Kirienko. The Romeo and Juliet plot of that movie incorporated the political events of November-December of 2004 as a background… Another example is The Pit by Liubomyr Kobyl'chuk. Here, however, there are no longer references to the political reality…” (Trymbach).
4] "Both (Khoroshko and Kobyl'chuk) agreed on the horror genre… It is hard for me to judge whether our cinematography schools teach how to shoot a horror film, but I suspect that they do not. Moreover, most of our professional film critics are little acquainted with the peculiarities of this genre… Such negligence does not simply stem from the Soviet times; the roots go much deeper. Some say that there is high art and pop art; there is a glorification of an individual, and there is simply a play on base human instincts… I even heard a statement that horror ‘is not our’ genre; it does not pertain either to our culture or our traditions. This is where the ignorance about the genre comes from" (Hrabovych).
5] E.g., in an article “Doroha do “Shtol'ni”: Voseny zakinchat'sia ziomky pershoho ukrains'koho molodizhnoho trylera,” [“A Road to The Pit”: Shooting of the First Ukrainian Teen Thriller Will Wrap up in the Fall] Aksin'ia Kurina retells a few facts from her interview with Kobyl'chuk and Khoroshko: “Director Liubomyr Kobyl'chuk: ‘We are shooting a beautiful high-quality film. The most important thing is suspense, mystery. I guess the film will silence the audience in the last rows in the movie theaters.’ Oleksii continues: ‘We wanted to combine the mystery of the Japanese horror films with Hitchcock’s suspense.’ The young directors also say that the new generation of Ukrainian viewers grew watching the Hollywood cinema; therefore, they wanted to use similar plot and schemes in their movie, although the world, which appears on the screen, is the same in which the contemporary Ukrainian teens live.]
6] “Kobyl'chuk and Khoroshko missed a chance to enrich their horror movie with unique scenes of violence; they failed to create a real model, which would serve as an example for the subsequent horror films, such as, for instance, a dance with the chainsaw from the unforgettable masterpiece of Hooper” (Hrabovych).
7] Cf. the interview, given to Kurina: “A.K. (Aksin'ia Kurina): Alright, so we established that the genre of the movie is horror. And what was next? How did you find the director? О.Kh. [Oleksii Khoroshko]: No, it is not a horror. It is an adventure thriller. But with elements of horror. This is a story of a group of young people who search for treasure. The effigy (of Perun) is a treasure indeed, since no such statue has been preserved” (Kurina, “Vidchaidushni zakhody” [Desperate Measures]).
Briukhovets'ka, Larysa. Prykhovani fil'my: Ukrains'ke kino 1990-kh, [Hidden Films: Ukrainian Cinema of the 1990s] Kyiv: ArtEk, 2003.
Cowan, Douglas E. Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2008.
Hare, William. Hitchcock and the Methods of Suspense. Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland & Co., 2007.
Hrabovych, Ihor. “Vpershe (Shtol'nia Liubomyra Kobyl'chuka),” [For the First Time (The Pit by Liubomyr Kobyl'chuk)] Kino-Kolo 19 April 2006.
Kurina, Aksin'ia. “Doroha do Shtol'ni: Voseny zakinchat'sia ziomky pershoho ukrains'koho molodizhnoho trylera,” [“A Road to The Pit”: Shooting of the First Ukrainian Teen Thriller Will Wrap up in the Fall] Kino-Kolo 9 September 2005.
——. “Vidchaidushni zakhody,” [Desperate Measures] Kino-Kolo, 10 April 2006.
Sakhaltuiev, Oleksii. “Za odyn krok do uspikhu (Shtol'nia Liubomyra Kobyl'chuka),” [One Step Away from Success (The Pit by Liubomyr Kobyl'chuk))] Kino-Kolo 21 April 2006.
Trymbach, Serhii. “Dity pidzemellia, dukhy pidzemellia (Shtol'nia Liubomyra Kobyl'chuka),” [Children of the Underworld, Ghosts of the Underworld (The Pit by Liubomyr Kobyl'chuk)] Kino-Kolo 17 April 2006.
The Pit, Ukraine, 2006
Color. 83 minutes
Director: Liubomyr Kobyl'chuk
Screenplay: Liubomyr Kobyl'chuk and Oleksii Khoroshko
Camera: Oleksii Khoroshko
Producer: Oleksii Khoroshko
Cast: Serhii Stas'ko, Svitlana Artamonova, Pavlo Li, Ol'ha Storozhuk, Oleksii Zabiehaiev
Co-Producer: Denys Ivanov
Production: Arthouse Traffic Ltd
Liubomyr Kobyl'chuk: The Pit (Shtol'nia, 2006)
reviewed by Svitlana Krys© 2009