POSSIBLY VERY MINOR SPOILERS
This movie is billed as the first Russian horror movie. Unfortunately, as far as I am concerned, "The Witch" (its Russian title) will take a place of dishonor in the gallery of horrible Russian movies. It is based on Nikolai Gogol's story "Viy" which is a classic in Russia. "Based" is the key word here since no familiarity with the story is required. Instead, the less you know about Gogol, the better.
It is a unique production because we are quite used to directors taking stories from other cultures and adapting them to their own culture. The spate of American remakes of foreign films is a prime example, but then again, Sturgess turned Kurosawa's Seven Samurai into The Magnificent Seven with splendid results, and Kurosawa transferred Shakespeare's Macbeth into Japan to make an incredibly powerful Throne in Blood, while King Lear became a riveting Ran. However, with "The Witch," we have Russians transplanting a Russian classical tale onto the American soil. The movie was shot in Estonia in English with the aim of dubbing it into English using American actors and have reasonably synchronous lip movements.
As a natural consequence, lost is the colorful Ukrainian background for the story, in comes a drab American small town seemingly lifted from some outdated horror book manual. Gone is the boozy seminarian Khoma Brutus, instead we have a boozy journalist who is about to win Pullitzer prize, and who at the same time writes about X-Files-like events and frequents Miss Boobs contests. (I never thought Pullitzer prize was given for that kind of writing, now I humbly stand corrected.) In a strange nod to Russianness, the journalist is named Ivan Berkhoff. They should've named him John Smith because it is impossible to get more hackneyed, clichéd and generic than this movie.
Berkhoff goes to a town named Castleville, gets stranded on a dirt road, staggers on until he finds a dilapidated house and is rather un-welcomed by an old crone. All that to the accompaniment of a radio announcement about the forces of evil being at their most powerful, and people better staying indoors and avoiding water. Need I mention that it's raining really hard? After a few supposedly frightening scenes which had me laughing, the story finds our journalist dressed as a priest, he's mistaken for a priest, and the local sheriff tells him his daughter who died after being brutally attacked wanted the new priest to pray for her for three nights. At this point, the action supposedly starts. Those who have time to kill are welcome to it.
What is wrong with this film? Everything, starting with the dialog and down to the prop department. The dialog which I heard in Russian was clearly originally written in English, and it was compiled exclusively from clichés and platitudes picked from American films. The actors just as clearly struggled with English because the timing of their speech was labored and unnatural, and the Russian dubbing followed suit. The acting is mostly atrocious, and not only because the actors find it often difficult to talk but because they don't have anything approaching a range of facial expressions. For the most part, they're just blank or you wish they were. The only exceptions being the sheriff played by Lembit Ulfsak, a fine Estonian actor, and Arnis Lizitis who plays a wheelchair bound resident of Castleville. Oh, and a rooster of course who's absolutely natural on camera! I know actors complain of being upstaged by dogs and cats but when Nikolaev is upstaged by a rooster it is a sad testimony to the general quality of acting in the film.
There wasn't a single scary moment in the entire film, and there wasn't a single original moment in the film either. Mind you, this comment's coming from somebody who's rather inexperienced with horror. The film is filled with standard moves used in horror movie since the genre's inception. At a critical moment, the camera lingers lovingly on a kerosene lamp. The lamp promptly goes out. It must have seen a few horror movies, too. An example of supreme idiocy comes at another moment, a character jumps out of a bathtub and runs at the camera. He's wearing something the looks like loincloth! It doesn't get any more idiotic than this!
Those in Russia who liked it claim it should've been advertised as a mystical thriller. I wasn't thrilled either. It was run-of-the-mill from start to finish. I particularly enjoyed the fact that the entire population of the little town behaved as if they knew exactly they lived in a horror movie, except they weren't quite sure whether it had zombies or not. Therefore, some of them acted zombie-like just in case.
The makers of the film say it's about finding faith. Such a fine collections of idiotic actions, stupidly contrived moments, and, yes, clichés, doesn't deserve to be about finding faith. The movie is so thoroughly and utterly fake it deserves only to be an exhibit in a wax figure museum.