Visions of Suffering (2006), as far as I can recall, is the first indie Russian horror film I've seen. It's a genre pretty alive everywhere else in the world but I assume due to financial limitations and government restrictions, which are just now really starting to open up in Russia, the market for horror films must be pretty small.
With the opening tagline: "A dream is a reality rejected by the mind", director/writer/producer/co-actor Andrey Iskanov has created an homegrown effort with a lean towards the experimental and surreal.
The story, such as it barely is, concerns two men who are experiencing nightmares about the same Hellish dreamscape and feel that the walls between these nightmares and their waking life are collapsing. Something, simply, is out to get them. And get them it will.
The Man with Glasses (Alexander Shevchenko) dreams every time it rains. His dreams are of a marshy woodland with odd foaming trees, weird spidery, Jello mold creatures in the trees, and creepy man-monsters in white netted bags beating a ceremonial drum with a stick. He's been getting weird phone calls where the other line contains noises of howling wind, odd squishes, and distant voices. A phone repairman (Victor Silken), from the land of exposition apparently, tells him about these netherworld "vampires" (not the traditional bloodsuckers) and how people in tune with them can listen in to their conversations but eventually become their prey. The Man with Glasses feels he is a target of these creatures, who lurk outside his apartment and make calls trying to get him to leave the relative safety of his room. He attempts to call his stoned-out raver girlfriend (Alexandra Batrumova) and get her to come over and help him to no avail. Her exact words are, "Vampires? Is that all?"
The other character being stalked by the dream creatures, who on this side of reality are mainly seen as pale, men in black, is The Priest (Andrey Iskanov). His motivations are a bit more vague. He sits around reading books on the occult and has a bunch of inner dialogue about the creatures and his search for them. His method of trying to contact them is to go to a club called Delirium, a place where it is apparently 1993 and the dress code requires you to paint your face like The Crow or a Marilyn Manson fan. Lots of dry ice, the constant annoying pulse of strobe lighting, blaring forgettable techno, bondage and fire breathing patrons, and such. This is also the place where the girlfriend is hanging out while her bespeckled boyfriend is getting his ear skewered through a keyhole by those prankster vamps. The girlfriend and The Priest (separately) take drugs and trip out.
There is also another little side plot, but again I hesitate to use the word plot when describing this movie because it is all pretty threadbare when it comes to story. Really the film is just about concept and atmosphere and not any kind of sensical narrative. Anyway, the mini-story has a guy beating a go-go dominatrix to death in full view of the could care less, clubbers and stashing the body in a bathtub. The corpse is later found by Delirium drug dealer (who's a dead ringer for that geeky actor in American Graffiti and The Untouchables). The body reanimates due to the spider-squid things and a Phantasm device, though more like a dildo than a ball, turns the dealers head into Buddy's Bar-B-Q. Meanwhile the go-go girl beater runs into a mortuary where he sees the men in black humping a corpse.
So, if you haven't figured by now in your reading, Visions of Suffering comes across as pretty disjointed, silly, very student film-ish, and many of the setting elements (like the techno fetish club) feel dated. If I slag on the film, it is all in good fun. The one thing I do not doubt is that it was made out of passion. Slaving and scraping together a movie like this clearly takes passion and the Andrey Iskanov's and the Damon Packard's of the world must be commended for their efforts. Of course, passion doesn't equal talent. Honestly, I'd have to see another effort by Iskanov to say if he has any potential.
Visions of Suffering is aggressively claustrophobic and wears its horror influences on its sleeve. The execution lies somewhere between a nu-metal video and a Rozz Williams, Richard Kern underground film. It's horror iconography ranges from gothic classic (skeletons in hanging cages), to modern (the men in black), to what the fuck? (epileptic puking scarecrows). The fx is a mixed bag, sometimes impressive, sometimes third rate. For instance, some of the gore is nicely done but the low grade CGI suffers quite a bit and does come across like a laptop beginners flick. Again, I don't mean those criticisms as a nock, just as facts to let viewers know what to expect. I'm sure Iskanov did his best and fully pushed the boundries of his technical/budget limitations
Where I do believe some criticism is fair, are two major areas, length and plotting or in the latters case, the lack thereof. Visions of Suffering clocks in at just over two hours. Now, not only is the sketchy story not there to grab you, the repetition and inclusion of negligible scenes makes the film extremely tedious. While stitching together his film, Iskanov leaves in scenes that either seem pointless but semi-cool (a fish head sandwich bit, complete with dead fish eye POV) or were pointless and poorly filmed (the girlfriend driving from Delirium to her boyfriends apartment, lots of murky, barely-not lit, undistinguishable night shots). The other problem is that it doesn't seem like the actual concept merits a non narrative, non logical approach. It really feels like there could be a story there if Iskonav really tried, rather than gluing together a bunch of scenes and fragmented ideas. In the DVD extras, Iskanov points to conceptual influences in the dreamlike nature of Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad, Argento's Suspiria, Tarkovsky's Solaris, and Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: The Iron Man, but he seemed to forget that all those films, odd, abstract, or surreal as they were, actually had a distinct narrative drive.
The DVD: Unearthed Films.
Picture: Standard Fullscreen. Being a video production the source has the obvious limitations and quirks. Nearly every bit of image has been processed, digitally roughed up and filtered, often monochrome like the amber hues of the dreamscape and blue tinge of the rainy reality. Technically the transfer seems spot-on. Though, to be honest, there is such and intentionally rough aesthetic and low budget, it was probably hard for me to spot any minor errors.
Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0. Russian language with optional English subtitles. Again, many of the problems here are source based and hte result of being a low budget film. For instance, much (all?) Of the film must have been made without sound equipment, so the dialogue was post-dubbed and it is quite evident. The film doesn't have a single quiet moment. There is always some kind of creepy sound effect or synth oscillation creeping through the background.
Extras: Trailers, for the film and other Unearthed releases. -- Bonus short film The Raven by Nic Lorentis (6:00). No relation to Visions of Suffering, just a bonus, of what I'll call a punk silent film. -- Production Photos & Art. -- Making of Visions of Suffering Featurette (53:14). Now, here is the real gem of the extras. Mainly the feature consists of Iskanov and actor Victor Silken discussing making the film, the concept, and Iskanov remarks on his influences. There is also a bit of behind the scenes footage of rehearsals and actual filming.
Conclusion: This is the kind of film I admire for the effort but the total sum just didn't work for me. Certainly worth checking out for those fans of cult/underground flicks and unfiltered horror films. Love it or loathe it, I doubt viewers with walk away from Visions of Suffering thinking that it wasn't memorable. It is a macabre head trip that will stay with you. As always really, Unearthed does an excellent job with the DVD and are commendable for putting the spotlight on the marginal corners of the cinema landscape. For starters, I'd say stick with a rental. Its not a blind buy kind of film. After a rental, some will feel that was enough while others may be inclined to purchase.