The Watchlist is Klassiki’s occasional series of themed viewing recommendations drawing from the cinema of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. In this edition, we suggest seven films from the region perfectly suited to the spooky season: from haunted hotels to undead witches and musical mermaids.
Natalya Varley and Leonid Kuravlyov in Viy (dir. Konstantin Yershov and Georgii Kropachev, 1967)
We’re celebrating Halloween this week with our latest Pick of the Week title, The Ballad of Piargy by Ivo Trajkov – an acclaimed exercise in folk-horror that draws on local Slovakian legends. It’s just one of the most recent additions to the diverse canon of eastern European horror. The socialist bloc was not known for horror filmmaking – it could be hard to get grisly material past state censors – but it still produced a rich tradition of genre films that drew on literary sources, Western imports, and local legends. In the post-socialist era, horror filmmaking has exploded across the region. At the same time, as Bulgarian critic Savina Petkova has recently observed, eastern Europe continues to prove a useful setting for Western horror filmmakers looking to capitalise on cheap stereotypes regarding its lawlessness and exoticism. The ongoing efforts of eastern European artists to craft their own screen shocks demonstrates their desire to wrest back control of their own image – and to put it to brilliantly scary use. Here are seven titles to unnerve and delight this October.
Viy (dir. Konstantin Yershov and Georgii Kropachev, 1967)
Often (erroneously) referred to as the “only Soviet horror film”, Viy has developed a hefty cult following in recent years. Yershov and Kropachev’s debut was adapted from an 1835 short story by Nikolai Gogol (Mykola Hohol in Ukrainian), whose dual affinity for folk tales and Christian parables, earthy realness and imaginative fantasy produced a steady stream of screen adaptations. Viy tells the story of seminary student Khoma Brutus (Leonid Kuravlyov), who must stand watch for three nights over the undead “corpse” of a witch he has earlier offended. Yershov and Kropachev picture the world of the supernatural as a garish, knockabout carnival, but still manage to arrive at a place of genuine unease as Khoma’s torment escalates. Gogol claimed that the titular monster – with its face of iron, limbs like rooted trunks, and eyelids that droop down to the floor – was drawn from local legend, but it appears that he invented it whole cloth. It has proven one of his most durable creations, thanks in no small part to Yershov and Kropachev. As many critics have noted, Gogol’s monstrosities and grotesqueries are deployed in service not of some clearly demarcated battle between good and evil, but rather as evidence of the compromise at the heart of human nature.
You Won’t Be Alone (dir. Goran Stolevski, 2022)
North Macedonia-born and Australia-based filmmaker Goran Stolevski turns to the folklore of his homeland for this genre-bending exercise in arthouse provocation and metaphysical exploration. A blend of psychodrama, visceral horror, and period drama, You Won’t Be Alone puts the world of the nineteenth-century Balkans on the big screen for foreign audiences with unprecedented affection and accuracy. The circuitous plot tells of a curse placed by the witch “Old Maid Maria” (Anamaria Marinca) on a young mother. The terrified woman hides her daughter, Nevena (played in different incarnations by Sara Klimoska and Noomi Rapace) in a cave for 16 years; but when Nevena is released into the world, she is forced to accompany the Maria, learning how to live while acting as an agent of evil. Stolevski commits to the logic of the folk tale, capturing bodies in the act of transformation, merging the human and the animal. The result is an unnerving but compelling, a horror film with heart.
Read our interview with Goran Stolevski about You Won’t Be Alone.
Noomi Rapace in You Won’t Be Alone (dir. Goran Stolevski, 2022)
The Rat Saviour (dir. Krsto Papić, 1976)
At the kitschier end of the horror spectrum, this Croatian cult classic is a prime cut of schlocky seventies action. A struggling writer (Ivica Vidović) discovers that a species of super-intelligent rats has learned to impersonate and supplant humans, sparking a frantic quest to get to the heart of this rodent conspiracy. Based on a story by the Soviet sci-fi author Aleksandr Grin, The Rat Saviour invites comparison with American body-swap thrillers like Invasion of the Body Snatchers – but it replaces those films’ Cold War paranoia with a more absurdist, almost gleefully chaotic tone. The result is closer in spirit to the lurid fantasies of Britain’s own Hammer Horror: one could easily imagine Christopher Lee or Vincent Price turning up in a cameo role.
Explore our collection of Yugoslav cinema here.
Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (dir. Grigori Kromarov, 1979)
The eery titular guesthouse, high in the hills in some unnamed European country, is the setting for this Soviet sci-fi/horror oddity from Estonian director Grigori Kromarov – although the film was in fact shot in the mountains of distant Kazakhstan. Alongside the likes of Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Sokurov’s Days of Eclipse, this is one of many sci-fi classics to be based on the literary works of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, who also contributed the screenplay. The chill of the snowy vistas beyond the windows are matched by the uncanny atmosphere inside the macabrely-monikered hotel, where things are not quite as they seem. Mixing its more fantastic elements with a visual palette borrowed from film noir, Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel has been read as a subversive takedown of the oppressive conformity of the Soviet system – but it works just as well as a pleasantly disquieting genre piece.
The Lure (dir. Agnieszka Smoczyńska, 2015)
One of the most distinctive directorial debuts of recent years, The Lure is a horror/rock musical hybrid with style and energy to spare. Its genre-mashing antics are in keeping with its alluring but grotesque protagonists: a pair of mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek and Michalina Olszańska) who conquer 1980s Warsaw as an all-singing, all-dancing cabaret act. These semi-aquatic beings are out to have a good time – and to satisfy their cannibalistic bloodlust while they’re at it. Director Agnieszka Smoczyńska was inspired by the real-life rock group Ballady i Romanse, made up of two sisters, who composed the film’s soundtrack. As in all the best horror films, the mechanics of the genre narrative are rich with metaphorical significance. The period setting evokes the thrilling but precarious rush of energy released by the end of martial law in eighties Poland, while the painful process of transformation undertaken by the siren sisters could symbolise everything from the pains of female adolescence to the tension between Europe’s (post-)socialist East and nominally-liberal West. In any case, the result is a wild ride that leaves the fairy tale mermaids of Hans Christian Andersen in the dust.
November (dir. Rainer Sarnet, 2017)
The Hourglass Sanatorium (dir. Wojciech Has, 1973)
Horror aficionados might well argue that Wojciech Has’s surrealist adaptation of Bruno Schulz’s story The Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass does not qualify for the list. But Has’s melancholic, oneiric, and doleful vision of a decaying world, as well as the historical context of Schulz’s writing, combine in this film to produce a singularly unsettling affect. The plot, such as it is, follows a young Jewish man named Joseph (Polish screen icon Jan Nowicki) as he travels to visit his dying father in a dilapidated sanatorium where the flow of time is distorted in mysterious ways. As Joseph relives episodes from his past and his dreams, the figure of death stalks his visions in the form of a blind train conductor. Has adds to Schulz’s source text his own reflections on the real-world horror that surpassed all fiction – the Holocaust – making the film into a meta-fictional treatment of the tragedy of Poland’s twentieth century: a technique that was also deployed by his compatriot Andrzej Żuławski for films such as The Third Part of the Night (1971) and Possession (1981).
Read Daniel Bird on the surreal, literary career of Wojciech Has.
November (dir. Rainer Sarnet, 2017)
One of the most beautiful and disturbing folk-horror features of recent years, November saw eccentric Estonian auteur Rainer Sarnet turn to the legends of his homeland for inspiration after a series of more worldly literary adaptations. Based on Andrus Kivirähk’s popular novel Rehepapp, the film conjures up an allegorical world of wonder and terror, in which lowly peasants must enlist the help of Kratts, animal-skulled automata powered by dark magic, in order to survive the winter and stave of the unwanted attention of ravenous wolves and black-eyed woodland ghosts. Shot in crystalline monochrome by veteran cinematographer Mart Taniel and elevated by the eerie score from Polish electroacoustic composer Michał Jacaszek, November speaks to the profound connection between the Estonian people and their native landscape: a connection that is experienced as both reverence and fear.
Read our interview with Rainer Sarnet about his latest film, The Invisible Fight.