By Elias Savada.
Despite the director’s limited ability to handle low-budget action in his debut feature, his much more accomplished follow-up shows he still needs to work with better, less-confusing script material.”
British filmmaker Ben Parker only has two features under his belt: The Chamber from 2017 and Burial, now being released in the United States by IFC Midnight. Despite the director’s limited ability to handle low-budget action in his debut feature, his much more accomplished follow-up shows he still needs to work with better, less-confusing script material (he wrote both films). That first film was a dreary underwater affair, a four-hander aboard a decommissioned “very old, very scrappy” DSRV (deep-submergence rescue vehicle) in the Yellow Sea being commandeered for an American Special Ops mission in Korean waters. It’s a sloggy B-movie with a lot of yelling and some plot elements borrowed from The Abyss – but without the extraterrestrials.
Breaking out of the mini-sub’s claustrophobic confines, Parker’s sophomore effort centers on the waning days of World War II, when a squadron of Soviet soldiers is scurrying Adolf Hitler’s corpse off to Moscow, through dense forest and lonely countryside, so Stalin can “look our enemy in the eye.” A ludicrous idea, to say the least. During their slow trek along dirty and muddy back roads, the black, wooden box – most of the soldiers are clueless to its contents – must be buried every night. One soldier, sounding eerily like Werner Herzog narrating one of his bombastic documentaries, spouts “You don’t think that’s strange we have to bury it overnight?” I was wondering the same thing, but apparently if the soldiers are killed in their sleep, the Bolsheviks think the dictator’s body won’t be found. Or maybe the dead Hitler is ripe for zombieizing, as one quick glimpse shows some plastic tubing inside the coffin? After all, Hollywood has often fantasized about Der Führer’s remains.
But, no, this isn’t really a horror film (even if the title suggests otherwise), although there are German “Werewolf” partisans hiding in the dark woods, and they attack the Red Army unit with some wily antics, several hairy, sharp-toothed disguises, and a hallucinogenic lichen-mushroom infused smoke that causes some nightmarish visions for the unsuspecting Russians. The wolves are also in cahoots with several German SS officers anxious to retrieve the corpse and film their assurance to the German public (“Spectacle is what the people crave!”) that it is NOT Hitler and that the Nazis must fight on. The Big Lie (quite palpable in today’s era of social disinformation) makes for even larger script confusion.
The best part of Parker’s script is its too-short 1991 London framing story, about an elderly dowager, Anna Marshall (pitch perfect Harriet Walker), who finds the evening news (all about the fall of Communism) interrupted by a home intruder who has learned about her past. After Anna easily captures the trespasser, a neo-Nazi skinhead, she gleefully begins to spin her own war story to the poor sod.
That’s when the clocks are turned back to 1945, when Anna was known as Brana Brodskaya (now portrayed by Charlotte Vega), an intelligence officer and the only female in the ill-fated Berlin-to-Moscow mission.
Placing both his films side-by-side there are many obvious comparisons. Secret fictional missions surrounding historical conflicts, climactic moments of self-sacrifice, gender spins on the Last Man Standing motif, strong female protagonists having to deal with sexist male characters. One film ends engulfed by fire, the other by water. And awful titles.
Vega does a fine job in the underling role to a variety of good-natured subordinates (Barry Ward, Bill Milner), a sympathetic Volksdeutsche – a Pole with German origins – who has deserted (Tom Felton), and the mess that is Comrade Captain Ilyasov (Dan Skinner), a beast who embraces the spoils of war, including rape. Other locals are semi-trusting of both sides, having borne the brunt of looting and pillaging by both armies. Despite the acting being earnest enough, there are precious few lines spoken in native tongues, and the English dialects come across as less than honest.
After the film moves past its climactic solution, it’s left to Anna to share her one horrifying wartime memento, hidden away in a hatbox in her closet, with her soon-to-be-dispatched captive.
The film’s earthy tones crafted by production designed Jaagup Roomet are well captured by cinematographer Rein Kotov, capturing the night shadows of the remote Estonian locations with spooky menace.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).