Saturday, May 9, 2015

Beat It, Essay: Few Times I've Been Around That Track

Here's the tricky thing: The essay prompt for my Russian Cinema class was to write a critical paper about a Russian film. Naturally I chose a slasher film. What do I look like, a nerd? 

The subject of my reviewings is 2007's Putevoy obkhodchik aka Trackman. So far so good. The only thing is, this critical piece will be a little more formal and academic than my normal style, so I'm going to attach a truncated review at the end of this essay to cover my normal topics like how cool that gore shot was or how the movie needed more hot dudes.

The Prompt
Write a critique on a Russian film not viewed in class, relating it to Russian films that you've seen as well as your personal film background.

The slasher film is an American tradition, dating all the way back to the 60’s and 70’s with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. By the Golden Age of the genre in the 1980’s, audiences couldn’t get enough of the low budget shockers, sending their box office returns through the roof. Naturally, when Russian filmmakers turned from their introspective, usually war-related fare (like Ballad of a Soldier or Prisoner of the Mountains) to attempts at American-style Blockbuster filmmaking (like the superhero action flick Black Lightning), the slasher genre was one of the first to be imitated. Igor Shavlak’s 2007 effort Putevoy Obkhodchik (aka Trackman) is a fairly devoted recreation of the formula, with some distinctly Russian twists.

Unfortunately Trackman is not quite as good as other Russian action/thriller efforts or the classic films of the slasher’s heyday, but it is an interesting piece to study in terms of how Russian filmmaking collides with a traditionally American genre format. The basic structure of the plot comes from the 1981 Canadian slasher My Bloody Valentine, which depicts a pickaxe-wielding killer in a miner’s uniform and gas mask stalking his victims through the underground corridors of a mine shaft. This idea is almost exactly recreated for Trackman, with minor changes. 

Instead of a crop of teenagers being stalked, it’s a group of untrustworthy bank robbers and their hostages hiding out in an underground tunnel system and plotting to steal the money from one another, mirroring the social and criminal decadence of 90’s films like Brother and The Thief. Instead of the killer being an enraged miner who narrowly survived a cave-in caused by negligence, he is a presumably mutated product of government cover-ups following the Chernobyl disaster. This character trait not only ties itself in with Russian history, it taps into the folklore surrounding the incident. 

As evidenced by the opening credits, which depict childlike drawings of the Trackman’s violent tendencies, Trackman is an almost mythical figure that taps deep into the subconscious of modern Russian society. In this way, he is implied to be a figure akin to that of Freddy Krueger, the grotesque villain from A Nightmare on Elm Street, whose legend has permeated the mythology of his suburban town to such a degree that the local children have written a jump rope rhyme about him.

This folklore element is crucial to many successful slasher films, including The Burning (in which a horribly burned groundskeeper named Cropsy – based on a New York state legend - stalks a local summer camp), Black Christmas (which utilizes the urban legend about a killer calling from inside the house to chilling effect), and Night of the Demon (which uses the famous North American cryptid Bigfoot as its mythical killer), so by utilizing the trope and reimagining it under a Russian context, Trackman lays a good foundation for itself. By combining the lingering effects of Chernobyl with the typical genre framework, Shavlak managed to create a classic slasher atmosphere with a distinctly Russian flavor. Unfortunately the green director doesn’t find much else to do with his excellent framework, resigning himself to a subpar thriller effort and turning his mythical killer into a hackneyed plot device instead of a being of true, potent evil.

One of the biggest, most egregious flaws of Trackman is its unsteady pacing. Any scene featuring the Trackman himself crackles with tension, but the film mishandles his infrequent scenes, arbitrarily teleporting him around the underground tunnels in an attempt to shock the audience through his sudden disappearances whenever a character whom he is stalking turns to look at him. Unfortunately this has the effect of deflating any tension the film has managed to muster, because any time Trackman threatens to do something interesting, he is whisked away by the unseemly whims of the narrative. 

This style could have been more effective had the killer’s mythical background been explored more thoroughly, but most of the important details regarding his motivations, personality, and even appearance are left to conjecture. The sharp-eyed slasher veteran can piece together the Trackman’s modus operandi (presumably he is so hideously deformed beneath his mask that he kills anybody who looks at him out of shame and fear), but these ideas are never thoroughly explored. 

Most of the film’s other elements of quality suffer from a similar lack of directorial guidance. For example, Trackman has terrific production values (despite not being a co-production like Burnt by the Sun or Mother and Son), but the slick, professional-looking tunnel sets are overlit and beset by a dully limited color palette that leaches out the film’s capacity to scare. Likewise, the budget runs short at the special effects, which look more like stagebound theatrical creations than truly cinematic ones. They don’t completely draw the spectator away from the film’s reality, but it does make some of the more intense scenes difficult to swallow. Together, these lackluster forces combine to create a tensionless horror film, devoid of any real terror.

Similarly, the occasionally great cinematography (which almost always manages to frame the killer in an eerily menacing manner, especially in one sequence where he is glimpsed through the whirling blades of an industrial fan) is marred by an indecent reliance on slow motion. Slow motion sequences are randomly scattered about the film, rarely if ever enhancing a scare. Rather, they pad the run time by forcing the viewer to contemplate one of the hostages walking or smoking a cigarette with almost absurdly lethargic speed. These moments have no motivation within or without the film, and are utterly tiresome. 

In addition, there are an abundance of sequences where the handheld camerawork becomes hyperbolically shaky, almost as if the director of photography intentionally swung the camera back and forth in some sort of apoplectic rage. The film is slightly redeemed by a finale so strange that it slips into the realm of surrealism, but these flaws in the film’s overall production value are difficult to overlook, to say the least.

However, despite its numerous shortcomings, Trackman may just be a growing pain for Russian genre filmmaking, considering that the country’s film industry has never had a booming horror scene. The keener interest in horror films has only developed over the past couple decades, presumably following as a direct result of the fall of the Soviet Union. Not only was the Russian population experiencing a breathtakingly new regime with more lax production codes, it was also beset with the criminal decadence that marked the post-Soviet period of the 90’s. The general populace was terrified of the long-term effects of this social negligence and sought catharsis in the cinema. 

Criminal horror films like 1994’s Mute Witness (which depicts a snuff film crew murdering their victims onscreen and evading the police while pursuing the sole witness), 1990’s City Zero (in which a factory worker discovers a town gone mad following the fall of the Soviet Union – including a secretary who works naked and a series of lunatics who worship the stranger as a rock ‘n roll legend), and 1998’s Of Freaks and Men (which depicts the downfall of Russian society following the rise of capitalism in the form of one pornographer breaking two families apart) used the rampant sex, violence, and rock ‘n roll of the era to shock viewers out of their complacency and provide them with safe, vicarious thrills.

Now that the decadent period has ended, Russian horror filmmakers are Hollywoodizing the horror genre one step at a time with films like the found footage effort Devil’s Pass and the torture film Captivity (both co-productions with the UK and America, respectively), as well as Trackman. Coming as it does at the beginning of the second wave of Russian horror cinema, it is understandable that the film has such a wealth of flaws – nothing like it has ever been attempted on Russian soil before. 

The biggest triumph of Trackman is in laying a foundation for future efforts in Russian horror. If budding filmmakers pick up where Trackman left off (with a folkloric antihero that taps deep into the Russian subconscious) but polish the edges and deepen the character’s mythology, the slasher genre could one day see something truly great come out of the untapped film terrain of Russia.

Trackman (Путевой обходчик / Putevoy obkhodchik)

Year: 2007
Director: Igor Shavlak
Cast: Svetlana Metkina, Dmitriy Orlov, Aleksandr Vysokovskiy
Run Time: 1 hour 20 minutes

OK, I'm gonna give it to you straight because you veteran Popcorn Culture readers are made of sterner stuff than my film professors: Trackman kinda sucks. It's real bad, you guys. The worst part about it though is that it squanders some great potential. Along with the intellectual claptrap you may or may not have read above, the killer has the audacity to use a gun.

The ground rule of slasher filmmaking is to never give your killer a gun. Sure, they're allowed in the grand finale of a slasher film so we can see some cool exploding heads, but the audience showed up for some baroque gore effects, not a goddamn Martin Scorsese movie. Anyway... 

The killer does have an interesting backstory, but literally all of it is conjecture. The only thing Trackman deigns to do with its title character is have him rip out people's eyes, sneak up behind people with a pickaxe, disappear when they turn around, and skulk around random tunnels until he's needed again for a cheap scare. There are Teleporting Killer moments so egregious that I genuinely thought he had mutant powers due to the Chernobyl radiation. He spends the bulk of his time trudging back and forth in empty tunnels, trying to maintain his balance despite the camera's hyperbolically canted angles.

There's one genuinely great scare/gore moment (a POV of the Trackman using a device to steal the ringleader Kostya's eyes - incidentally, Kostya looks a little like Fred Armisen's evil twin so that's fun) and a couple creepy sequences of the Trackman standing in the dark tunnels in front of a flickering light, but the bulk of the film is anemic to the core. The "gouged-out eye" makeup that you can see in the essay above looks less like an eye socket than a chalk eyepatch, and there's not much else of note in the special effects department. That is the showstopper. It's hardly worthy of a suburban haunted house, let alone a feature film.

The finale is pure action nonsense that involves exploding gas canisters and hot-wiring a motorcycle, but at least it's semi-intersting. The rest of the film is content to slap some slow motion on its characters every 12 seconds or so as if the true villain were a student arthouse film that gained sentience and stalked the filmmakers in the editing room.

It's clumsy and it's dull, and it was sheer torture to pull four and a half pages on the topic out of my brain. But I did it and here it is. Marvel at the glory.

Body Count: 5
  1. Splint has his eyes gouged out.
  2. Kostya is pickaxed to death.
  3. Olga is shot to death.
  4. Sergeant Irkut is run over by a slow-moving trolley.
  5. Kirk is shot to death. 
TL;DR: Trackman is a dull, amateur slasher that squanders its generic potential.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 2008

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