An economically struggling young woman is lured into the snare of a wealthy, mysterious man. She finds herself in an isolated manor, full of horror and secrets. It’s a story we’ve seen re-told time and time again. And for good reason. It’s a testament to the almost mythic power of Gothic horror.
The Russian Bride, from director Michael S. Ojeda (Avenged), is a new take on classic Gothic horror. The film, which had its world premiere today at Cinepocalypse 2018, harkens back to all the classic Gothic horror stories that it knowingly homages. But Ojeda struggles with what genre he is committed to working in. As a result, what could have been an effective gothic chiller struggles to build focused suspense.
The Russian Bride opens with the aloof billionaire Karl Frederick (Corbin Bernsen) browsing a website for Russian mail-order brides. He shows interest in Nina (Oksana Orlan). Nina is a struggling single mother, sharing a cramped apartment with her 11-year-old daughter, Dasha (Kristena Pimenova). She desperately wishes to escape to a world of security and comfort for her daughter’s sake. After a frightening encounter with her drug-addicted ex-husband pushes her to the brink, she agrees to fly to America to marry Karl, daughter in tow.
“The Russian Bride effectively builds atmosphere and character from the start.”
The Russian Bride effectively builds atmosphere and character from the start. We immediately feel for Nina and her daughter and hope that they will find the escape they need. Oksana Orlan has a wonderfully expressive and melancholy face, and her performance immediately pulls you into Nina’s life and struggle. But Jim Or’s gorgeously moody, ominous cinematography tells us that the mother and daughter are rushing towards something far more sinister than a happily ever after.
Nina and her daughter arrive in the dead of winter at Karl’s secluded estate. It’s a classic Gothic setting — a sprawling castle with decaying grounds, surrounded by a snow-covered forest. The castle is full of lonely rooms, mysterious doors, and forbidden wings. There’s even a looming, mute groundskeeper (Michael Robert Brandon) and Maria (Lisa Goodman), a housekeeper very reminiscent of Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers. But Karl distracts Nina and Dasha from any genre-aware red flags with a promise of love and luxury.
Despite the familiar trappings, the film sets up an intriguing mystery and palpable sense of dread. But it’s not long before the plot begins to get disjointed. Is this a Bluebeard inspired murder mystery? A Jane Eyre style story of a woman seduced by a mysterious man haunted by his past? A ghost story? The film dances with these elements but fails to fully commit to any of them.
Dasha loves old horror films, and she frequently watches classic Universal monster movies and Vincent Pryce features. The through-line of these films speaks to Ojeda’s passion for the genre and serves as the strongest thematic element of The Russian Bride.
A viewing of The House on Haunted Hill serves as both effective foreshadowing and the center of one of the most suspenseful ghostly encounters in the film. But Ojeda never fully commits to telling a ghost story, leaving the supernatural elements to feel out-of-place.
Some clues are never followed up on and often aspects of the mystery are too quickly revealed. The question of if Nina and Dasha are safe with Karl is not left to linger and build suspense. It becomes immediately obvious the answer is no, and we’re left waiting for the pair to make their inevitable attempt at escape.
Despite these stumbling blocks, The Russian Bride still manages to be an adequately absorbing film for the majority of its runtime. Most of this is due to Orlan, who infuses Nina with such vulnerability, decency, and quiet strength that we can’t help but root for her. The film takes Nina’s struggles very seriously, and it works. But by The Russian Bride’s climax, the film dives straight into over the top grindhouse fair. The previously excellent editing becomes unfocused, the performances turn melodramatic, and the blood and gore splatter with abandon. It’s all good fun, but it feels like a different movie than what we started with. It’s all so B-Movie that it cheapens the very real empathy we felt for Nina and her economic situation at the film’s start.
“The Russian Bride is a promising, but ultimately flawed film.”
The Russian Bride is a promising, but ultimately flawed film. It builds strong atmosphere, character, and an intriguing mystery. Beautiful cinematography, haunting visuals, effective editing, and strong performances pull us in. But by the end, I was left longing for the film that could have been. If Ojeda had committed fully to his gothic inspiration, The Russian Bride could have been something special. Instead, it’s an entertaining but ultimately uneven horror film. When the film does shine, it shows great potential talent in Ojeda. Hopefully, he can take that talent in a more focused direction in the future to create some great horror.
The Russian Bride held its worldwide premiere at Cinepocalypse 2018. Additional festival dates and release information will soon follow.