Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Daddy, Santa Claus is Dead – review

Director: Yevgeny Yufit

Release date: 1991

Contains spoilers

Family of the Vourdalak (1843) by Count Alexis Tolstoy is a classic 19th Century vampire tale. Most famously it was made into one of three short films in Mario Bava’s anthology Black Sabbath and was the source for the film Night of the Devils. Both were blooming marvellous films but neither could prepare you for the surreal Papa, umer ded moroz.

That isn’t to say that the film is a bad film, it certainly isn’t. But it is most definitely strange. Tolstoy’s story is recognisable in the film and the vampiric elements are hiding in plain sight. If you dislike arthouse films then you are probably better looking away now. However the film has a way of catching a hold of you and drawing you into its eerie landscape – made all the more sparse for the lack of musical score.

trap
It begins with a man underground – possibly in a sewer or water logged bunker. He trips and falls head first into a wire noose, the trap killing him. A young boy with dead eyes and a one legged man go to him. His watch is stolen, his suitcase emptied of the metalwork contents and filled with the clothes stripped from his body. His naked corpse is wheeled away on a trolley and disposed of in fast flowing waters. The trap, it is clear, was constructed by this pair.

on the train
A biologist is investigating a rodent, a shrew-mouse he says. He plans to stay with his cousin in the countryside whilst working on his paper about the mouse and so takes a train out to the country. As they travel, the passenger next to him peaks around a curtain and announces, “Forest” and then “Lake”. When the biologist disembarks he sees a group of men in black suits, stood in a field, crowded around what is clearly a body. They finish wrapping and leave. The biologist approaches and removes some of the shroud bindings. It is a woman, still alive.

silent reunion
Having helped her he goes to his cousin’s house. A woman (his cousin's wife) lets him in and his cousin, on hearing of their familial bond, hugs him fiercely and then sits with him in silence. The wife returns and also sits in silence. Their young son eventually makes an appearance. The film deliberately sits with them, the silence pregnant, the dialogue sparse throughout the film, and yet somehow you are pulled into this sordid, dirty world with peeling wallpaper and muddy clothes.

vourdalak takes the grandson
A man enters the house, the boy calls him grandfather and we recognise this from Tolstoy. The biologist later sees the old man and the boy outside and, later still, clears grasses away to find the boy left languid and deathlike, softly imploring his grandfather to bestow more kisses. Later we see the father with an axe, sharpening a long trunk of wood into a stake. When the mother deliberately throws it into the river the father is angered and inconsolable – the son, of course, has died and the stake is lost, while the dreamlike quality of the film means that the idea of simply sharpening another stake is not appropriate.

Mother with the stake
With strange rituals from the men in the fields, homosexual lust hidden behind a closed door, an existential dentist who stuffs the mouth with cotton and a child’s suicide; this film guides us along rare paths. The film, to some degree, reminded me of Vampyr in timbre and in that the actors seemed chosen for their faces as much as anything, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they were chosen because the director felt they looked the part. Yet the film achieves an hallucinatory cohesiveness because of this.

carrying the coffin
This works so well because it is a dreamscape (or should that be a nightmare), because it might be purgatory or worse, because it refuses to explain but forces speculation and because it is undoubtedly Tolstoy’s story. The Grandpa is most definitely a vourdalak, his grandson the first victim. Of course, there is also the joy of being able to post about a film called Daddy, Santa Claus is Dead. 7 out of 10, with the health warning that it is arthouse, with all the entails.

The imdb page is here.

3 comments:

OllieMugwump said...

Caught this on YouTube. A good intro to Soviet/Russian Necrorealism.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

I was aware of its place in the necrorealism movement but, to be fair, it isn't an art movement I am too familiar with generally.

OllieMugwump said...

Basically it's life and death symbolism fueled by the despair and real 'living death' of Soviet communism and its collapse.