Salem Horror Fest 2023: A Pulpy, Ukrainian Witchcraft Fable Unfolds In a Dark, Dark Room

In a Dark, Dark Room (V Chorniy, Chorniy Kimnati) begins by following a group of teenagers through a bizarre couple of days as they learn of their history teacher’s violent passing and then time-hopping back to a few days earlier. After Volt (Artur Novikov) is embarrassed and gets revenge on the teacher by trying to frighten her, the trio of friends decide to lay low by taking a day off, hiding in an abandoned building in the woods. There they find an ancient amulet left behind during a recent archaeological venture to recover artifacts from a Pagan group that once resided in the area. For some unknown reason, they all take turns making wishes on it and finding that those wishes have been granted shortly after. This includes Volt’s wish, who asked that dogs rip apart the history teacher who embarrassed him. As they struggle to come to grips with the hauntingly powerful object, they soon realize their town is inhabited by centuries-old witches.

Petiunia, Volt, and Tomcat stand in a row in a playground in In a Dark, Dark Room

Introduced to Volt, Tomcat (Anton Sokol), and Petiunia (Illia Vyshnevetskyi), my first thoughts turned to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Though their getups don’t evoke any resemblance to Malcolm McDowell and his Droogs, the group’s behavior surely does, especially when they attempt to intimidate a teacher through their choice of a bat or sexual force. Very quickly in the film, the audience is forced to reconcile with their animosity toward these characters. Yet, writer-director Denis Sobolev keeps a relatively even keel for them by providing amicable evidence of the teenagers’ lifestyle and lack of guidance. It’s complex enough to help us stick around, but we’re never empathetic for this trio of miscreant characters.  

As the film continues, the perspective then shifts to the arrival of their teacher’s replacement, Gottlib (Rei Yeremii), whose backstory indicates he’s a Van Helsing-type witch hunter who’s been after this coven for a long time since discovering the curse placed on his mother at the time of her death. There are additional characters at play as well, helping to tie the film together nicely by showing the supreme dark side of the town as the supernatural chaos begins spiraling out of control.  

For such a small production, In a Dark, Dark Room acts like a much larger film. There aren’t any big explosions or shootout scenes, but there are many locations, various camera implementations, and a rather large cast. What’s more, the movie also features good practical effects work, a pretty good metal soundtrack, and high-level production design. 

Olenka gives a sinister smile while staring directly into the camera in In a Dark, Dark Room

Plotwise, In a Dark, Dark Room is pretty good, but how it tells its story is sometimes difficult to follow. It begins with a character we don’t see again until thirty minutes later. It reopens on Volt, Tomcat, and Petiunia after the incident with their teacher, then goes back two days to tell the whole story. When their chapter ends, the next resets and follows another character at another point in time. It’s also not the only time it time hops. The film may be structurally challenging, but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad. If you’re reading this ahead of seeing In a Dark, Dark Room, you may have an easier time having this knowledge beforehand. However, the moments where the film twists itself into a pulp comic nightmare are legitimately satisfying.  

Further frustrating, but to a lesser degree, In a Dark, Dark Room’s subtitles aren’t always succinct. Certain phrases, idioms, and words are unclear in the translation between Ukrainian to English. However, characters tend to do an excellent job emoting their dialogue. Particularly Novikov, who tonally projects many of his lines so you can discern anger or sarcasm. His expert facial expressions also become a key factor, so though we may not fully understand some of the lines, the actors’ nuances help mediate any real confusion.  

It’s a very interesting time in Ukranian history to see a film like In a Dark, Dark Room. The allure of power and prosperity for teenagers on the outskirts of an urban environment and the way the witch attracts them to it serves as a metaphor for Russian propaganda. Russia has used tactics to turn Ukranians to their cause, with the promise of food and safety, as well as creating deep-fake videos of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky asking his country to lay down their weapons and surrender to Kremlin forces. Embedded in Sobolev’s movie is the similar ideology of witches using prosperous tactics, attempting to turn the tide of war in their favor by using the younger generation’s lack of historical knowledge to strengthen their cause. When the witch Olenka (Iryna Kudashova) asks the boys to gather followers and spill blood for her, the nuance evaporates a little more as the town’s children form an army of devotees and the “undesirables” in the town begin to disappear. 

Olenka smiles as blood drips onto her face and in her mouth in In a Dark Dark Room

In a Dark, Dark Room winds up being a middle-of-the-road film for me. If you can follow all of the jumps it makes in the timeline, the story is quite good. However, I also understand where it can be more than a little confusing. The embedded social issues of the film are approached with incredible subtlety, and the story ends in an entertaining bout of good vs. evil. Audiences will likely be mixed or equally conflicted as I am, but In a Dark, Dark Room offers a unique perspective from a country living through daily fears. 

In a Dark, Dark Room played as a part of Salem Horror Fest on April 23. It is currently touring the festival circuit.

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Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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