Thursday, March 27, 2008

Discovering A Russian Horror-Fantasy Classic

A woman falls helpless before the thunderous hoofbeats of THE SAVAGE HUNT OF KING STACH.

Some weeks back, I was reading posts on the Classic Horror Film Board and found reference to Aleksandr Ptushko's THE NEW GULLIVER being available on disc from a German-based DVD importer called PeterShop. I went to and promptly placed an order for THE NEW GULLIVER as well as a half-dozen other Russian horror-fantasy rarities, some of which were on the Ruscico label but not as yet available from the US-based website.

Unfortunately, after placing my order, I received an e-mail from PeterShop telling me that THE NEW GULLIVER was no longer available. They said I could request a replacement title of equal value or a refund, which I did. My shipment of the other titles, including Russian discs of BURATINO and THE CHILDREN OF CAPTAIN GRANT (both 1930s films featuring special effects by the young Ptushko), arrived in good time, so I can recommend PeterShop whole-heartedly.

One of the Ruscico oddities I ordered was a 1979 film called THE SAVAGE HUNT OF KING STACH (pronounced "Stack"). I had never heard of it before, but I took the plunge because the PeterShop ordering page claimed that it had "been assigned a most honorable place in history, next to CAT'S EYE, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and a masterpiece of national sub-horror, the animation HAZELNUT TREE." Now, I don't personally consider CAT'S EYE on an equal level with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but nevertheless I was intrigued... and the hyperbole was grounded by a half-dozen prizes and citations awarded to the film at various international festivals.

The disc is packaged in cover art that I didn't find very tantalizing, so it has been sitting here unwatched since it arrived, but last night -- needing some Dog Byte material -- I watched it on a whim... and surprise, surprise: I think it's one of the great unheralded horror films of the 1970s. I was prompted to write a full-length review for VIDEO WATCHDOG #139 (now going into production). To bait your interest in that review, and in the film, here is an excerpt:

"Boris Plotnikov stars as Bielarecki, a young ethnographer who, at the end of the 19th century, requests the hospitality of Marsh Firs, an isolated castle in the Northwest marshlands, while he conducts research into the myths and legends of the region. He discovers from the castle's young and tragic owner, Nadzieja Jankowska (Yelena Dimotrova), that the place is haunted by two ghosts─the Little Man of Marsh Firs and the Lady in Blue─and that her family line was accursed centuries ago when ancestor Roman Jankowska denied the hand of his daughter to King Stach, whose ghost now rides with those of thirteen horsemen to drag Jankowska offspring and their servants to death in the surrounding marshes... This winner of numerous international film festival prizes could be described as THE HOUSE WITH LAUGHING WINDOWS meets TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD, with grace notes of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, LISA AND THE DEVIL and DON'T LOOK NOW."

Purely for compositional purposes, I've cropped the frame grab seen above from its standard presentation on disc, which, for the record, does feature English audio and subtitle options. (I think it may work better in English than in Russian.) The director, Valery Rubinchik, claims in a supplementary interview that he made THE SAVAGE HUNT OF KING STACH not with the intention of making a horror film, but a film whose inherent fears and mysteries made it truer to real life. Regardless of his intentions, he made a real gooseflesh-raiser, though it more properly belongs to the realm of fantasy rather than horror. It's one of those movies that force its reviewers to recount a long list of haunting images, so I recommend you try to see them for yourself.

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