Under Bolshaya Pirogovskaya street the Diggers discovered a deserted laboratory with an old telephone, chemical protection suits hanging on the walls, and old fashioned respiration masks. The room appeared to have been abandoned in a hurry. In adjacent rooms there were huge flasks and the floor was covered in crystals. (from Spirit-of-Moscow.com Unaccredited. 2007).
It seems remarkable that in a land like Russia, plentiful as it is in secluded areas and with its rich folklore and chequered history, has produced so little in the way of legendary horror tales either between the covers of a book or on the screen. Their lack of a Gothic phase in their cultural history, the censoriousness of the Soviet era and their need, in troubled times, for light escapism might all be held to account for this.
There are, nevertheless, some exceptions that are worth noting. Viy, produced by Mosfilm in 1967 may have been a tribute to a Gogol story aimed at a family audience but what transpired was as lurid and creepy as any of the British Hammer Horror films of the same period. Then, how about Heart of a Dog (Lenfilm, 1992)? Here was a classy made for TV movie which entailed a faithful rendering of Mikhail Bulgakov’s dig at the Soviet New Man. Like that novel, however, it can be appreciated on the level of a Frankenstinian cum-Jekyll and Hyde romp. Then we have Psychosis (2009) a low budget chillier directed by Kirill Khrestinin about a bewitched country cottage, and said to be based on real events that occurred in Saratov.
Queen of Spades: The Dark Rite (2014) aims at being more of a crowd puller to rival the likes of the American Insidious franchise. It almost succeeds too, with a story about a malevolent spirit released by a group of teenagers.
Diggers (Diggeriy, 2016) is more ambitious insofar as, even though it is hatched from a well worn sub genre, seems not to take any direct inspiration from anything showing in the Western cinemas right now. The writer, Tikhon Kornev, is a somewhat versatile talent: he was responsible for a feel good offering called Moms in 2012 and, this year, had a hand in Ekipazh, an adventure blockbuster.
For this film Kornev has drawn on the real life activities of a group of urban explorers called Diggers. At least since the eighties certain youths have been risking arrest by lowering themselves into hitherto unexplored parts of subterranean Moscow. On return they claim to have discovered up to 12 levels below that of the Metro tunnels and tell tales of communities eking out an existence down there, or of the odd murdered corpse. More extravagant reports talk of stumbling on torture chambers or deserted laboratories.
The screenplay uses this mythology as its starting point. A group of Metro passengers vanish in mysterious circumstances. The matter becomes a media cause celebre and it falls to a young couple, with the help of a shadowy punk Digger, to abseil into the lower depths to see what they can find out about what happened to friends of theirs. Meanwhile, some of the surviving passengers are looking for a way back to the surface. It is the progress of these two groups that forms the narrative, with the scares provided by human-rat hybrids that are the products of experiments conducted by the Soviets.
We are introduced to a motley crew of characters: a dorkish female gaming fan complete with swords, a sharp suited but suicidal businessman, a Ksenia Sobchak-like T.V anchor and a Chinese man, whose words are subtitled.
Most of these players end up being snatched away by the unseen monster. Later on we get to see the beast as, in a Brothers Grimm-like sequence, it chops up the remains of a victim whilst listening, again and again, to a record of a 1930s dance step instruction class.
Also featured are some striking underwater scenes (parts of the Metro being flooded) and a modish nod to found footage movies, but what holds it all together is an enlivening and doomy electro-rock score.
The monster-in-the underground trope might be traced back a long way, from the silly (if prescient) Split Second (1992) which sets Rutger Hauer in a duel with a demonic entity marauding in London’s tube in a flooded near future, to five years later when Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic set the gold standard with its puppet based mutated cockroaches stalking New York’s subway. Diggers, however, presents a very Russian face with its protagonists soliloquising in the manner of those in Tarkovsky films. It was difficult, as far as precedents go, not to be reminded more of Dmitry Glukhovsky’s lugubrious novels Metro 2033 and Metro 2034 (from 2005 and 2009).
With its sense of a past returning to haunt us Diggers could be seen as a riposte to the optimistic heroism of much of Russian popular culture. Like Ekipazh, on the other hand, it re-animates a neglected sub genre, in this case the creature-feature.
Sad to say, I discovered this film quite by chance: it was given a brief showing at the superb new Avenue theatre in Yugo Zapadnaya, with little advance publicity. I shared the venue with just two other young spectators.