I know I gave a nice little plan about what I was gong to write about in my last article, and that was what i intended to follow – but then I saw Pavel Khvaleev’s ‘III: The Ritual’ (2015) and it all sort of just flew out the window. Despite having varying reviews during its reception, I can’t convey how much I enjoyed the film. It was horrific and yet subtle, atmospheric, and seemed to take great influence from surrealist works before it. So instead I’ll be writing my way into another batch of surrealist horror, I promise I’ll eventually get round to the works I mentioned previously. My bad.
The film focuses around the sisters Ayia and Mirra, as they live through an epidemic in their remote Russian town. After their mother’s death and Mirra’s infection, Ayia turns to Father Hermon for help. the Father eventually suggests they undergo the shamanistic healing ritual, where Ayia must delve into Mirra’s nightmares in order to find the spiritual root of the disease.
While the film undergoes periods of heavy exposition and realist focus in the hardships of town life in 20th century Russia – Ayia and Mirra both undergo numerous dream sequences while exploring Mirra’s sub conscious mind. These sections were evidently my favourite, for many reasons. These sections produce some stunning visuals, Mirra’s spiritual plain acting as a mirror for places in her reality. There are plenty of panoramic sections where the cinematography really comes into its own, capturing burning, dark sunsets as well as expansive, frozen wastelands. It’s a kind of beautiful strange, and among the periods of nightmares the film gives plenty of breathing room not only to recover – but to admire. As with many nightmares, the two face a series of strange and threatening creatures in a ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ style exploration of a fantasy world. These monsters are dark though, each a twisted reflection of Mirra’s fears and doubts. One example includes a juddering, woodland creature that appears from a tree covered in spider webs. With no facial features it crawls in the dirt of a forest to consume Mirra within her own head – all the while the camera pans around the eerily, crimson-tinted woodland. Another is an equally disturbing man, wrapped in a sack and a severely disfigured yet strangely blank face who pulls a mill-wheel wit a noose around his neck. This in fact represents their stepfather, who abused Mirra when she was younger and often threatened to hang her. Subsequently, the monster is then draw up on the rope to its death. These sequences feel frightening without resorting to simple jump scares or traditionally ‘Gothic’ monster tropes. The fear lies in their surreal nature, the unpredictability of a dream becomes infectious and soon you feel as if you can’t trust anything that the films places in front of you.
Even the ‘realist’ scenes carry with them a certain detachment, as with the section where Father Hermon saves a woman from drowning herself in a lake. The quietest of moments feel threatening and the deeper you go into the film the more acutely aware a viewer becomes of that.As Father Hermon says, “The deeper you go into an ocean, the darker it gets.” I think the soundtrack is also responsible for this. As well as packing an intriguingly catchy electro-grunge song in the opening titles, the score is made up of industrial clanging coupled with soft, orchestral melodies. The result is haunting and foreboding, but never too much of one or the other. Much like with visuals, the method of the film is to place before a viewer scenes of both disturbing closeness and enchanting distance, all applying the exaggerated heights of a dreamworld in every sense of the term. Consequently many of the lasting images of the film remain in the mind, as much as a surrealist painting might – filled with detail and simplicity. One that comes to mind is in the ‘deepest’ level of Mirra’s nightmare which unravels as a craggy, terracotta desert, filled with rocks. In it, Ayia finds a mirror from her childhood home and spins – staring at the reflection which is in fact a different world. Even though you’re presented with a wide, well-lit space – you’re probably still inexplicably nervous as to what will happen next. It’s far harder to be scared in the daylight then it is in the dark.
While I loved the film, I have to say that some of the acting did seem a bit wooden. While I understand that some of the weirdness in the script is more down to translation rather than bad writing, there were moments of expression where I just didn’t believe anything the character was saying. This was rare though, and I was mostly indulged in the shamanistic nightmare portrayed in front of me. The film has a great knack of exposing the ugly side of the spiritual, bringing every psychological nuance to light under the guise of ‘transcendence.’
Maybe i’m biased (i.e. I am very biased) but this did remind me of ‘Silent Hill’ a lot. The main thing was the whole deal with psychological consequence, and monsters reflecting our own demons. But even in the nitty-gritty of the film I was reminded of the Japanese franchise. The soundtrack is very reminiscent of Akira Yamaoka’s industrial melodies, and the unending atmosphere of uneasiness and haunted reflection carried consistently through the film.But most of all is the element of emotion that drives the surreal horror, namely guilt. Some way through, Mirra admits that she feels guilty about their mother’s death and that she should have done more – picturing their mother’s screaming corpse trapped beneath thick ice. Each character has a psychological motive, much like in ‘silent Hill’, and those motives are spelt out in disturbing parodies of reality – in fact the most shallow is Ayia’s surprisingly, whose motive is one of love for her sister. Although, and call me out on this, I got the feeling the film commented on that at the beginning where Mirra gives Ayia the dog from there childhood. She claims that he ran away because she ‘loved him too much’ – perhaps a subtle nod that the Ayia’s reliance on her sister’s relationship is unhealthy? Maybe.
Despite a few flaws in the delivery of character, I believe the film is very successful is delivering a definite surreal take on psychological horror. I was afraid of it because I couldn’t predict it, and for me that’s a sure sign of a successful horror but also a truly surreal piece of work. The visuals last in the memory as well as delivering a fantastic twist at the end which left me shivering. The film brings forth a subtle, layered piece of psychological and spiritual exploration fuelled by highly emphatic emotional journeys. If ever there’s an example of a horror being beautiful, this is it.