The Phobos (Oleg Assadulin, 2010)
[note: review originally published 10Mar2011]
Americans have been making fun of the former USSR for being woefully out of date for decades. Remember the Yugo, which popped up in the mid-eighties? It looked like something that had been manufactured just after World War II, and for that matter broke down as often as a then-forty-year-old car would. I think Yugo dealerships may have lasted two years in America before shutting down. (Side note: the reason the now-ubiquitous Korean car dealerships had so much problem gaining a foothold in America in the early nineties was because the Yugo, America’s last major attempt to import cars from a new country, was such a flop. You almost didn’t get that expensive, classy Hyundai Equus you’re driving now because the Yugoslavians can’t make cars.) But sometimes going retro is a really good idea. Take the case of the possibly-supernatural thriller. Those suckers are a dime a dozen in both Hollywood and the amateur American film market; you see three of them a week on the newly-revamped Syfy Channel, and six a week on Chiller. And they pretty much all suck (with a few exceptions that, as the saying goes, prove the rule). But if you head back to the eighties, buried among the flood of slasher flicks, you could find some real gems in that regard. Enter The Phobos, an Estonian (yes! I believe this to be the first film from Estonia I’ve ever seen) chiller that seems to have no conception of anything that’s been done in American or European atmospheric horror for the past thirty years. And that, my friends, is much to its credit.
(Note: as is usual with obscure foreign flicks, especially badly-subtitled ones, no one bothered to match character names up with actors’ names, so I can’t tell you who plays who, for the most part.) Plot: A young entrepreneur is getting ready to open a new nightclub in the middle of nowhere called The Phobos in an abandoned bomb shelter. It’s still under construction, but there are a bunch of folks hanging around, including an electrician, the boss and his partner, boss’ girlfriend and her best friend, the prospective new DJ and his brother, and a few other hangers-on. Mike, the DJ, is off in a side room that used to be the control room for the bomb shelter doing a couple of lines when he asks the question that always leads to disaster: “what does this pretty red button do?” Of course, the gang get locked in, at which point the power goes out. As the main doors are electrical, they have to find another way out. While most of the walls are built to withstand a nuclear blast, obviously, they do find one made of brick, and break through it to discover that the other side is a crypt. That’s when the weird things start happening…
I discovered this movie thanks to Agniya Kuznetsova, who popped up in the absurdist Gruz 200 a few years ago (note to self: you never did review that) and is so delicious that I instantly decided to track down everything she’s appeared in since (Gruz 200 was her film debut). She’s just as cute here, though in a far smaller role, unfortunately. She’s also the best actress of the bunch, though really no one here is terrible, at least in relation to the other former-USSR horror flicks of recent vintage I’ve seen (have you had the chance to watch Trackman yet? No, and you shouldn’t). And they do the best they can with a script that spends a little too much time stopping the action to explain what’s going on, but not enough to completely destroy the action. The script (and the film) is at its best when you’re never quite sure whether everything that’s going on is supernatural in origin or not; that question gets resolved about half an hour before the end, and the movie drops off at that point, but it’s still a decent about of fun.
My biggest problem with the movie has nothing to do with the movie itself, but with the subtitling, which is amateur at best; too much is crammed onto one screen on a regular basis, so even seeing it on the big screen (if you ever get the chance) will cause squinting. Watching it on video is just plain mind-numbing at times. One screen that does this is the very first, so gauge how well you can read the subtitles by that. Or you can just ignore the fact that you have no idea what anyone’s saying, unless you speak fluent Russian, and go with it—but this is a movie where a lot gets explained in the dialogue, so I’m not sure how well that would work.
It’s decidedly low-budget (IMDB reports $2.5mil US), but it looks as good as recent American retro-horror flicks (think The House of the Devil here), but without all the meta that you get with movies from more cosmopolitan areas. It’s not going to make anyone’s list of the ten best movies of the decade, but it’s not a bad little film, and beats pretty much anything you’ll see on Syfy or Chiller in the same vein. ** ½
“Saw is a good, this is shit!” –comment on the trailer