Fear Before the Fall: Horror Films in the Late Soviet Union (Alexander Herbert) – Book Review

The horror genre is a popular one, that has always been around in some form or another. Whether it be scary stories around a fire at night, the written word, cinema, or interactive media, the genre has continued to evolve with humanity over the centuries and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, despite some campaigns to get rid of it lest it ‘harm’ society. One medium that has done exceptionally well with horror is film, with one of the very first films ever made, a fifty second shot of a train arriving at a station, L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, reportedly causing fear and panic in the audience perhaps unintentionally making it the very first horror film.

Over the years the medium has evolved and expanded, with early works such as Thomas Edison’s 1910 production of Frankenstein, and the 1922 Nosferatu being some of the best known early examples of overt horror in film. As the medium grew, horror films grew with it, and would go on to reflect social issues and societal fears of the time.

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The 1950s saw an influx of science based horror films as a result of the fears in society from nuclear science, with films such as GodzillaThe Blob, and The Fly warning of the dangers of science. As time moved on and the Cold War set in, horror began to cover fear of ‘the other’ and of assimilation, with films like Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, and Night of the Living Dead. Eventually we’d move on to fear of the killers amongst us as the slasher genre came into popularity with HalloweenThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Black Christmas. Even later still, in more modern times we’ve come to fear the unexplained and unknown, with paranormal horror taking the spotlight in titles like Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and The Conjuring.

But the vast majority of these examples, and similar ones that I’m sure you could come up with, all concern what would be called ‘western’ horror films, focusing on the output from the US and the UK most of all. For the most part these are the films that the average cinema-goer will be aware of, with those who would call themselves cinephiles probably also being able to run of a list of Japanese and Korean horror films that had a boom in the 90s onwards. But even those who consider themselves connoisseurs of the genre might be hard pressed to name many, if any, Soviet horror films. Thanks in large part to the division between East and West during the height of the Cold War, much of Soviet cinema has been a secret for those outside of the former Soviet influence. But now author Alexander Herbert is is here to help you discover some of these very well hidden films.

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Fear Before the Fall: Horror Films in the Late Soviet Union does pretty much what the title suggests it will, and delves into the films of the late Soviet Union. However, this is more than just a film guide, as Herbert also tries to take a look into the cultural significance of the film, how it came about, what it’s trying to say, and how it fit into the ever changing landscape of the Soviet Union. Herbert states early on that this book, despite the academic sounding title, is not ‘an academic monograph’, instead stating that this book was made, and designed to be read, for fun. And it does become apparent as you make your way through the book that despite the author’s clearly well researched and well presented knowledge on the subject you yourself don’t need to be an expert on either cinema, or the Soviet Union, in order to take something away from this. Instead, you can settle in for an enjoyable read that will introduce you to some new films.

The films covered by the book include Viy, one of the earliest films made under the rule of the Soviet Union, that sees a young priest being tormented by spirits from hell as he watches over the body of a young woman in his church. Viy very much feels like the beginning of Soviet horror, and Herbert outlines well how it draws upon older folk tales, whilst also drawing in more modern concerns and issues in a way that marries the past and present, bringing the traditions of the past into the new way of life that the Soviet people were living through. The book also covers films such as Gothic horror tale Savage Hunt of King Stakh, futurist horror The Veldt, and vampire film Sem’ia Vurdalaka.

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Each chapter, which covers a film, is split into several sections/ The first introduces the film itself, the second deals with the narrative, another the context, and a final one deals with the creation of the film and the impact it had. Each chapter ranges in size, but is roughly around ten or so pages each, giving you enough time to really delve into each of the films and get a good sense of it before moving onto the next. The book includes pictures from the films, though as they’re presented in black and white, and there are few high quality stills from some of the films, it can sometimes be a bit difficult to fully understand or appreciate what is being shown.

As someone who enjoys the horror genre, and has an interest in film history and how film interacts with society, this was a really interesting read. It was great to see how cinema worked in a setting where I’d not really thought about it before. Us in the ‘west’ have heard all kinds of stories about what life was like within the Soviet Union; usually stories that paint it as an awful place thanks to residual anti-Soviet propaganda and hate, so we’ve probably either never thought about their film industry, or assumed that it was all government-made pro-communist propaganda. To actually see a well researched and well presented breakdown of what it was like was not only incredibly interesting, but hugely informative. Plus, you come away from the experience with a few new films to add to you watch list. Fear Before The Fall might be something of a niche read, but it’s one that will appeal to a lot of readers if given the chance.

Fear Before the Fall: Horror Films in the Late Soviet Union is out now from John Hunt Publishing/Zer0 Books.

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