February 07, 2008

DEAD DAUGHTERS (2007) stylised supernatural Russian horror


(2007, Russia, Myortvye docheri)

PAL Russian DVD (Vox Video)

(This review also appears on 24framespersecond...)

Dead Daughters is a recent horror film that’s part of the push to get Russia back into the international market (like Day Watch and Apocalypse Code). That’s not to say that it has surrendered any of its Russian-ness, but been too obviously influenced by Japanese and US horror. Even so, surprise, surprise, the remake rights have already been bought in the US.

Naturally, the template seems to be Ring, with a simple set of supernatural rules, a short deadline, and scary girls with long black hair…

Vera is waiting in her car when a dishevelled stranger jumps in and threatens to hurt her if she doesn’t drive off immediately. He says that he’s being chased by the ghosts of three murdered children who will kill him if he does anything bad. Vera listens to his story but wisely takes the opportunity to dump him. She later tells five friends about the madman’s ghost story, not realising that he died soon after, and the dead daughters are now watching her every move…

Watching Dead Daughters was quite an experience, but eventually a frustrating one. I was initially seduced by the twitchy camerawork and heavily distorted colours, into a bleak nightmarish mood where vengeful ghosts could actually victimise the living. But I was hungry for the story to progress, and didn’t realise that the two-hour movie wasn’t going to deliver any major thrills until near the end.

The simple premise lost momentum for a long while, as a journalist tries to unravel the facts. But his search, and the experiences of ‘the five’, don’t bear fruit in the loooong second act. I later wandered why the premise had been set up at the start not once, but twice – both with disappointing pay-offs. Mood is important, but it felt like hours before the horror kicked in.

The simple rules laid down (eventually) are very clear, but the narrative is hazy as to how each character does something ‘bad’ enough to become a target, or why they were first chosen. All indicators that the producers want horror movie profits, but aren't taking the genre seriously enough to stick to it's own logic.

When the five agree that they will take the curse seriously, there may have been some comedy moments as they avoid doing anything that could at all be considered bad. Like a Jim Carrey movie, they are forced to tell the truth, be nice to colleagues at work, stop smoking… These are either supposed to be funny and aren’t, or supposed to be suspenseful but aren’t.

Besides the similar plot structure, there are direct references to Ring in the form of in-jokes. Ten years on, this is a little late considering there have also been four Scary Movies to do the job better. Samara even gets a name check, (the US version of Sadako) lumped in with some anime references. They must have watched both films.

I’d really rather see some local homegrown ideas, than such derivative stuff. What draws me to Thai and Japanese fantasy is to hear about their legends and beliefs. Fresh meat for horror fans sick of seeing familiar themes rehashed. Dead Daughters even takes it’s climax directly from the first sequel of a well-known US franchise…

I didn’t mind that the entire movie was shot with a constantly darting camera, it’s very well done. Though the ‘crushed’ details of many interior scenes, reduce much of the screen to blackness. This is an electronic process that takes place after the cinematography has wrapped, sometimes even after the editing has finished. We therefore don’t get to see what the camera or the editor saw, because the colours and brightness have been so drastically altered. I was sensing that I couldn’t see all the important information in the frame, to the point that I had no idea how two of the murders took place! The stylised look is great, but I’d also like to see what’s going on…

The unsettling, shifting camera sometimes means that we are sharing what the dead daughters are watching. I later realised that I’d recently seen several horrors taking a very similar stylistic approach. Shrooms was jerkily but beautifully shot, with extremely unnatural colours. So was
Them, though both those were shot on video, while Dead Daughters benefits from expertly filmed cinematography. Nightmare Detective is still my pick of the wobble-cam bunch, because Tsukamoto is years ahead of the pack as an expert in jerky camera technique and fast-cutting, while still communicating narrative.

Unlike Night and Day Watch, the cast is almost completely made up of trendy twenty-somethings, a similar approach to US horror. It’s difficult to learn about modern Russia through such a distorting lens as this film, but there seemed to be satire and, if I read it right, comedy at the expense of the characters. All good-looking youngsters, with new capitalist jobs, like I.T., logo design, rock star, estate agent… They were all into fervent consumerism, laptops, grungy designer clothes... Indeed, we first see them surrounded by a room ridiculously full of litter from an evening in.

Where shops selling consumer goods in Soviet Russia were once only open to tourists, new Russia now has more of a disposable consumer society. Like the new Thai slasher movies, these mean nouveau riche kids are lined up to die bloody and painful deaths. Is that because the characters appeal to the audience, or are they being killed to appease the have-nots?

Attempts at broader comedy sabotage the well built-up, gloomy mood. There’s a taut scene where one of 'the cursed' visits a psychic. But because she is hypnotised by using the twirling flail of a battery-driven kung-fu hamster, it’s very hard to take seriously.

The swirling, layered soundscape is at its strongest using ethereal guitarwork, reminding me of Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie’s score to Mysterious Skin. But this is intersperesed with some downright awful cheap stock ‘horror’ music phrases that fight the modern mood onscreen.

Dead Daughters is almost very good – its strengths outweigh the many weaknesses. The atmosphere and approach are memorable, and I could probably appreciate the dark humour better on a second viewing. But it could certainly lose a few pounds around the middle.

The Russian DVD has English subtitles, but these are sometimes badly timed – there is often a long subtitle to cover the next three lines of dialogue spoken, rather than one each. There are some spelling mistakes and a few minor mistranslations – but nothing damaging. The picture is well-presented in 2.35 anamorphic letterbox, and there’s a choice of Russian audio mixes – stereo, 5.1 and DTS. There are also some extended behind-the-scenes as extras, but these aren’t subtitled. The DVD is available from
Diabolik and DVDigitALL. Perhaps if the remake goes ahead, a US release will follow.

English language website is still online film...

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