By JENN ADAMS
Starring Artur Novikov, Anton Sokol, Illia Vyshnevetskyi
Directed by Denis Sobolev
Movies about witches usually come in two flavors: those that vilify and those that sympathize. The Ukrainian film, IN A DARK, DARK ROOM is the former. The story follows a trio of misfit teen boys coerced into evil by a coven of witches who seemingly exist to torture men. Writer and director Denis Sobolev nods to real witchcraft with references to Walpurgis Night, Beltane, and Princess Olga of Kiev, rumored to be a man-eating she-wolf. Unfortunately, that’s where the empowerment ends. IN A DARK, DARK ROOM is a film about men and the women they fear. The witches and female characters themselves are disposable.
The story begins with a woman, hands bound, running naked through the woods. A man on a motorcycle chases her and she causes him to crash before running away with a cackle on her lips. We then meet our heroes; three high school outcasts who spend their days harassing teachers and bemoaning their lots in life. After disrupting class, Volt (Artur Novikov) seems poised to assault his teacher in the restroom. When she reports his actions, he accidentally causes her gruesome death by wishing for it on a magic amulet that also summons another malevolent young woman. When more of their wishes come true, the boys make a blood offering and draw their classmates into a coven that attracts the attention of a traveling witch hunter called Gottlib (Rei Yeremii). After escaping the captivity of a powerful seductress, he sets his sights on ridding the town of its sinister women. Galvanized into action after witches killed his mother, Gottlib and his motorcycle are guided by an all-consuming hatred of witches and a little girl who may be the manifestation of God.
The story is divided into four chapters, but essentially split into two different threads. Sobolev presents the teen boys as sympathetic ne’er-do-wells despite the fact that they have few redeeming qualities. Volt disparages his female classmates and harasses his teacher, interrupting class to dispute the folklore she’s lecturing on and then wishing for her death when she stands up for herself. The story goes on to present them with more sympathy, but it’s difficult to see them as anything but villains. The witch that entrances them does so with a bevy of dark-edged teenage fantasies. One of the other boys wishes that his father would stop drinking only to find that he has died from alcohol poisoning. And another wishes to sleep with his crush and within days, she shows up at their hideout ready for sex. We soon find out there’s more to this story, but not much more. Her character hints at fascinating female empowerment, but she’s quickly abandoned by the male-centric plot.
Gottlib’s half of the story barely makes any sense. The man on the motorcycle arrives in town to take the place of Volt’s dead teacher before a backstory gives us more information. In a dying declaration, his mother blames witches for her demise and Gottlib dedicates his life to tracking them down. He’s then seduced by a young witch and held prisoner in a bizarre sex cabin that can only be escaped with the help of a magical little girl. This story could be fascinating if it depicted its female characters with any kind of humanity. Unfortunately, they exist only to torment or save Gottlib and Volt, the narrative’s true focus.
A brief plot line involving a high school student who finds herself pregnant by the married father of a classmate promises an interesting story of female empowerment. Films about young women turning to witchcraft for help with bodily autonomy are especially powerful given today’s political climate. Unfortunately, Sobolev abandons this plot line almost immediately and returns us to the corruption of Volt and his friends. It’s an unfortunate throughline in the film as a whole. Female characters are either evil seductresses, martyrs, or dolts. They receive almost no attention outside of how they interact with the men who dominate the story. Were it not for a white mohawk, black lipstick, and blond hair, they would be virtually interchangeable.
Despite this confusion, the film itself looks great. Sobolev clearly has an understanding of effective cinematography and works around the small budget in creative ways. This artistry elevates the film, lending the story a feeling of refinement not supported by the clunky script. The timeline is a jumble of flashbacks and parallel events meant to serve as shocking realizations, but these twists make it nearly impossible to keep the story straight. The bones of a good film exist within this mishmash of male wish fulfillment. With a coherent script and a more humanistic lens, this could be a terrifying parable about the corruption of youth. What we get is a film focused entirely on its male characters. The women are just fodder for misogynistic ideals and a fear of female power.