Hyped on the internet and in the Russian media for months prior to its release, writer/director Pavel Ruminov?s big-budget, modern horror film Dead Daughters was supposed to herald a new movement in Russian cinema, bringing not only the high-tech effects of movies like Nightwatch to the fright genre, but also the slow-burning tempo and mood of Japanese horror to domestic screens. Unfortunately for the controversial Ruminov (who has had several very public feuds with other filmmakers and critics), the film may have been subject to a bit too much advance praise, since most reviews in Russia have only been mildly positive, with others being downright hateful.
With the film making the rounds of other festivals lately ? most recently the Philadelphia Film Festival, which hosted its North American premiere ? American audiences have finally been able to contribute their thoughts to the ongoing debate. Sadly, this reviewer has to be counted among the haters ? the film is a completely unoriginal, frustrating, even infuriating mix of empty style and recycled plot. A bad J-horror clone may still feel original to some viewers in Russia, but North American audiences should keep clear of this stinker and look elsewhere for genre innovation. Maybe the already-in-production U.S. remake will improve upon the original?
Young Muscovite Vera is startled one evening when a crazed man jumps into her car in the middle of traffic, ranting and raving about someone or something that?s after him, Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style. Strangely doing little to attempt to get away from him, Vera accepts the man?s invitation to go to dinner in a seafood restaurant, where she hears the story of what?s troubling him. He says he is being terrorized by the ?three daughters,? ghosts of some little girls who were drowned by their own mother, now undead and so full of rage that they are seeking revenge on all who cross their paths. The gimmick of this particular supernatural grudge is that the girls always target the last person to see their previous victim alive, allowing that person three days to live and ? in the one bit of innovative writing in the film ? watching the victim during this period to see if they do anything bad.
What exactly constitutes this ?bad behavior? is one of the screenplay?s many problems, however, as is the unfortunate fact that the entire Grudge / three days formula has been lifted from the Ring and Ju-on films. Nevertheless, Vera?s friends are sufficiently surprised when she relates this story to them, but not nearly as surprised as when she dies later, leaving all five of them next in line for the daughters? revenge, since they said good-bye to her as a group the night she told them the story. The plot then enters Final Destination territory, as each of the friends is now on the lookout for the ghostly girls, while at the same time monitoring their own behavior, lest they do something wrong and wind up killed by some innocuous object, pushed into them (or onto them) by the girls? telekinesis. The surviving friends ? a continually-dwindling number ? try to discover the full history of the murderous mother and her dead daughters, leading to the ubiquitous trip to a creaky old house, the discovery of a long-forgotten survivor who knows more of the story than they?re letting on, and more gory set pieces, none of which do much to maintain viewer interest in the story.
Even without knowing about it beforehand, it would be easy to peg Ruminov as a former music video and commercial director, as little as five minutes into the two hour-plus movie. The overbearing style with which he shoots every scene screams out ?look at me!? in a desperate bid for significance, belying the mundane plot details and familiar story. It?s as if Tony Scott movies and reruns of NYPD Blue were Ruminov?s only cinematic diet while he was making Dead Daughters, since every scene in the over-long movie is not only shot in a steely blue hue, but also subject to the worst camera-shaking outside of an earthquake movie. Combined with the scope frame of the film, it?s an easy way to induce queasiness in the audience (like many accused Blair Witch Project of doing) and further turn viewers against the movie. Beginning with the opening car dialogue, each scene in the film goes on for at least several minutes too long, over-emphasizing the obvious plot points while at the same time omitting enough elements to keep most of the audience in the dark about the actual details of the story until the end.
Yet even then the screenplay is frustratingly oblique, with many audience members wondering just what the hell happened when the lights came up, and not in a good way. Slavishly imitative, annoyingly directed, and dull as dishwater, Dead Daughters not only didn?t deserve the hype it was subject to prior to its release, it doesn?t even deserve a second look by horror fans looking for something innovative and different. Perhaps another Russian filmmaker will use the film as a platform to create something truly unique and distinctive. American viewers certainly don?t need to look abroad for bad J-horror imitations; we?ve got enough here at home already.
Dead Daughters is playing as part of the '07 Philadelphia Film Festival.