SavageHuntThere’s a great deal of macabre gusto in this Soviet chiller about a band of ghostly hunters. It’s chilly, atmospheric and beautifully photographed–and so warrants a recommendation, even though I’m not overjoyed with the film as a whole.

The 1979 SAVAGE HUNT OF KING STACH (DIKAYA OKHOTA KOROLYA STAKHA), based on the 1964 novel by Uladzimir Karatkievic, is credited by some as the “first” Soviet mystical thriller. Whoever made that claim evidently didn’t know about previous (and superior) Soviet horror-fests like VIY and THE EVE OF IVAN KUPALO. In any event, THE SAVAGE HUNT was extremely well received, winning a myriad of prestigious awards at film festivals around the world.

The setting is sometime in the late 19th Century, when Andrej, a naïve young man, happens upon a creepy manor. As he learns from the apathetic old woman servant who answers the door, the place is the abode of the Janowskis, a centuries old clan whose members have largely died off. The winsome young Nadzieja Janowska, who’s currently residing in the manor, is the only surviving Janowski.

She’s terrified by a tiny man whose appearance supposedly portends death, a spectral lady in blue and, most of all, the “Savage Hunt” of the ghostly King Stach. It seems that back in the 17th Century King Stach was betrayed and murdered by one of Nadzieja’s ancestors, but before he died the King vowed to track down and exterminate the entire Janowski line. Since then the King’s ghost and those of twenty of his subordinates are said to haunt the area, all riding spectral horses.

Andrej is immediately convinced that the King and his hunters are actually flesh-and-blood villagers passing themselves off as spirits. He also discovers the source of the ghostly woman in blue: it’s actually Nadzieja herself, an incurable sleepwalker.

One evening Andrej sees the Savage Hunt for the first time, and is nearly trampled. He informs a local police commissioner of what occurred, but the latter is completely unhelpful. Concluding that he’ll have to deal with his problems on his own, Andrej sets about ferreting out the real perpetrators of the Savage Hunt. In the process he runs into the tiny man who so terrified Nadzieja (actually a midget locked in the cellar of the Janowski manor) and affects a final confrontation with the Savage Hunt.

Director Valery Rubinchik demonstrates some bad habits (including much zoom lens abuse and clumsily utilized slow motion), but the dark-hued beauty of the photography, the creative sound design and the deeply ominous atmosphere are all impressive. The Belorussian locations are impeccably chosen, with the exteriors marked by overcast skies and dead trees, while the main interior set is a sumptuously designed gothic funhouse. The sequences inside the manor are stark and melodramatic in the mode of a Hammer programmer, but there are also quieter, more poetic moments (such as the eerie first appearance of the Savage Hunt) that wouldn’t feel out of place in the cinema of Rubinchik’s fellow countrymen Andrei Tarkovsky and Alexander Sokurov.

What’s ultimately disappointing about the film is the very thing I find most irritating about the Karatkievič novel: the insistence on rationally explaining away all the supernatural events a la SCOOBY-DOO. In some ways that tendency is even more grating here than in the novel, as Valery Rubinchik does such a painstaking job crafting an ambiance of supernatural menace. There are admittedly some bravura visuals in the final moments, when the King’s hunters are unmasked and revealed as scarecrows and skeletons, but it’s a shame Rubinchik didn’t follow the film’s mystical edge through to the end.

Vital Statistics

Belarusfilm Studio

Director: Valery Rubinchik
Screenplay: Vladimir Korotkevich, Valery Rubinchik
(Based on a novel by Uładzimir Karatkievič)
Cinematography: Tatiana Loginova
Cast: Boris Plotnikov, Yelena Dimitrova, Igor Klass, Alexander Kharitonov, Boris Khmelnitsky, Albert Filozov, Valentina Shendrikova, Roman Filippov, Vladimir Fyodorov, Maria Kapnist