Issue 71 (2021)

Ol’ga Gorodetskaia: Evil Boy (Tvar’, 2019)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova © 2021

tvarEvil Boy is Ol’ga Gorodetskaia’s feature film debut. The script is based on a story by the famous Russian fantasy writer Anna Starobinets, whose works combine Slavic folklore with global motifs of fantasy and horror genres. Gorodetskaia’s previous work included The Dive (Pogruzhenie, 2015), a short film that starred Aleksei Serebriakov and Roman Madianov and was screened at the Cannes Short Film Corner and the Moscow International Film Festival, among others. Evil Boy, likewise, features a star cast but tries its hand at horror. Elena Liadova and Vladimir Vdovichenkov play wife and husband, Polina and Igor’ Belov, who, on advice from their therapist (played by Evgenii Tsyganov), decide to adopt a boy three years after their own six-year-old son did not return home from a walk. While visiting an orphanage, Polina notices a feral boy teased by other kids and is immediately drawn to him. There are plenty of warning signs: Polina finds the boy next to the dead groundskeeper who served as the boy’s guardian; the child’s responses are barely human, and even the nun, sister Isidora, who works at the orphanage (played by Roza Khairullina) tries to talk the couple out of this adoption. Yet Polina is adamant that this boy is her lost son, Vania. Incidents of violent behavior accumulate in a parallel fashion to the boy actually morphing into Vania (and many others besides).

tvarThe mystery of real Vania’s disappearance will be solved, and the secret of the “fake Vania’s” origin will be revealed. But while the former is a very palpable issue played out well in the film, the latter—and the nature of evil and monstrosity—is handled less successfully. One reason is the lack of an established native tradition of horror and, as a result, a hodgepodge of motifs and references that the film employs. On the one hand, at the center of the narrative are individual psychological causes (loss, pain, guilt) that provide effective motivation for characters’ behavior and for the creature’s ability to take the form of the lost loved one. On the other hand, the motif of the “devil child” relies on the Hollywood tradition of The Exorcist (dir. William Friedkin, 1973) and The Omen (dir. Richard Donner, 1976). A Christian framework, of course, is central to those classic American horror films. In Evil Boy, there are nuns, but Christian references are confusing at best. Sister Isidora, for example, tells Igor’ to baptize the adopted boy, while calling him nezhit’ (the undead creature)—a seemingly absurd suggestion and arguably a sign of double faith (at best). Pseudo-Vania, in fact, is more like a nature or forest spirit, in the style of “ethno-horror”—a subgenre that has recently made some inroads in Russia: Sviatoslav Podgaevskii’s Bride (Nevesta, 2017), Mermaid: Lake of the Dead (Rusalka. Ozero mertvykh, 2018) and Baba Yaga: Terror of the Dark Forrest (Iaga. Koshmar temnogo lesa, 2020), and Egor Baranov’s Gogol (2017-18).

tvarEvil Boy’s mise-en-scene is central to the genre ideology of the film. We visit an upper middle class suburban house and an upscale condo in the city, where the nuclear family’s stability and status quo are challenged by a tragedy. The traumatic experience is conveyed through cold, drained, bluish colors in both the suburban house and the condo. This is one of the most effective and sophisticated uses of the mise-en-scene and color in the film. The fake Vania’s red rags, and later red jacket, is the only bright spot in the film. This bloody spot signals the trauma in the lives of the parents who lost their son. In a way, the film follows the familiar horror-film narrative of the presence of absence: the loss of a child does not interrupt parent-child relationship; it just turns it into a nightmare, as any fan of Alfred Hitchcock would confirm. While the filmmakers’ knowledge of the conventions of psychological thriller is laudable, these are the conventions of the cinema of the 1960s and 1970s. Evil Boy bears no traces of any diversity whatsoever, be it class or ethnicity or race. The film’s social sterility is as terrifying as the boy’s monstrosity.

tvarThe most famous cinematic examples of the horror genre are grounded in the palpable socio-economic realia of American life, whereas Gorodetskaia’s film is somewhat abstract in its settings. It is not quite clear what kind of doctors and “pedagogues” can maintain such a high-income lifestyle in the present-day Russia. They drive huge, expensive SUVs, maintain a leisure class lifestyle, and are not concerned about finances whatsoever (we never see the spouses at work). This lack of social fabric makes it hard for the viewer to fully identify with the film’s characters.  

tvarDespite these reservations about Gorodetskaia’s film’s success as a genre vehicle, Sony Pictures found Evil Boy appealing enough for remaking it for other global markets. Specifically, Sony purchased the rights for the adaptation and re-release of Evil Boy in India and South Korea (Anon. 2019). In summary, the film might not be the pinnacle of the horror genre but the all-female team of director and scriptwriter made a product successful enough to be distributed (with some adjustments) internationally.

Elena Prokhorova
College of William and Mary

Comment on this article on Facebook

Works Cited

Anon. 2019. “Rossiiskii khorror ‘Tvar’ poluchit indiiskii i iuzshnokoreiskii remeiki”. 20 Nov.

Evil Boy, Russia, 2019
Color, 90 minutes
Director: Ol’ga Gorodetskaia
Screenplay: Ol’ga Gorodetskaia, Maria Kabanova, Ol’ga Starobinets
Cinematography: Il’ia Ovsenev
Music: Aleksandr Slutskii, Karim Naser
Cast: Elena Liadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Sevast’ian Bugaev, Evgenii Tsyganov, Roza Khairullina, Anna Ukolova, Konstantin Topolaga, Ian Runov, Evgenii Antropov, Konstantin Murzenko
Production: Company SOK, Dub Lab, Yandex.Studiia, Star Media
Release: 28 November 2019

Ol’ga Gorodetskaia: Evil Boy (Tvar’, 2019)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova © 2021

Updated: 2021