“A Lithuanian horror movie” makes people confused. “Does it even exist?” Having won over international audiences with documentaries and dramas, Lithuanian filmmakers are seemingly reluctant to tackle genre cinema.
However, there is one, and so far only, Lithuanian horror film. ‘Rūsys’ (‘Cellar’), directed by Ričardas Matačius, came out in 2014 and caught the domestic audience’s attention for its peculiar genre description – the first Lithuanian horror – as much as for its famous cast that included Marius Jampolskis and Jurga Šeduikytė.
The film was said to be based on real events, even though no one can really confirm whether the story really happened or was it just a PR trick on the production team’s side.
The story follows the family of a successful painter, Ieva, and her husband Tomas. After they get visited by an unfamiliar guest, who simply disappears in the cellar of their house, bizarre things start happening around them. Ieva, who is pregnant, cannot fall asleep anymore, she also experiences constant severe pain.
‘Cellar’ has been heavily criticised for its strange, choppy division of the storyline using a Latin word culpa (guilt) flashing on the screen. According to critics, it served absolutely no purpose besides just being a fancy-looking foreign word.
Another problem was the lack of depth in characters. There was no character development – Ieva and Tomas were extremely dull and one-dimensional, critics said. You could remove one of the main characters from the plot and it would change little to nothing.
‘Cellar’ received much attention and mostly negative reviews in which the film was called “80 minutes of suffering – and not the good kind”. The only Lithuanian horror film became a milestone that no one wanted repeat.
But why has this genre failed to get a foothold in the Lithuanian film industry?
Three million critics
“If I had to re-shoot the movie again, I would do a lot of things differently,” Matačius tells LRT.lt. “I learned a lot of valuable lessons. I am glad about that.”
Making horror movies in Lithuania is a hard and risky endeavour in many ways, especially financially.
“I do not want to say that financial matters didn’t allow us to make the film. With the budget we had, we did the most that we could,” says Matačius. “But we did struggle. This movie was made with one person’s money and support from a few partners.”
The horror genre is extremely complicated, according to the filmmaker. It is a niche genre aimed at a niche audience who enjoy it. One also must pick from the many horror sub-genres that exist – from bloody and violent gore to psychological horror.
These sub-genres have their own rules and require careful planning and mastery. One must know how to create suspense, according to the filmmaker, and one cannot simply come up with an idea and start working on it immediately.
As to why his first attempt did not meet much success, Matačius gives several reasons, one of which was insufficient preparation. Compared to standard pre-production times for horror films made by foreign companies, ‘Cellar’ was made extremely quickly.
“When it comes to basketball in Lithuania, we have three million coaches. When it comes to this industry, we also have three million film critics,” Matačius adds. “When you are first in something, people scrutinize you through a magnifying glass. And since it was my debut… Well, it is how it is.”
Lithuania needs a Stephen King?
Looking at ‘Cellar’, Edgaras Klivis, an associate professor at Vytautas Magnus University’s Faculty of Arts, agrees that the film looks rushed. However, he sees other issues than the ones raised by Matačius.
“First of all, to make a horror film, you need to have a good screenplay,” he says. With not much in a way of Lithuanian horror fiction, “there is no tradition of horror writing in this country.”
Horror as a genre is very calculated and follows certain rules for how to build up tension, according to Klivis.
“Of course, you need a talent for that, but it is also about skill. A skill that, unfortunately, is in short supply in Lithuania,” said the expert.
As for ‘Cellar’, it was a nice attempt at something new in the Lithuanian cinema, albeit an unsuccessful one, Klivis says. The film had many issues, including with a weak script, acting and cinematography.
However, he adds, Lithuanian filmmakers are rapid learners, while the public, too, becomes more demanding.
Klivis notes that it does not take a Stephen King to write a decent horror screenplay, as most are written by authors whose names are quite unfamiliar to the public, as long as they are well trained in the craft.
“Maybe the initiative could be taken up by TV channels,” suggested Klivis. “They could send a few talented writers to study abroad. They would learn, come back to Lithuania, and write screenplays for us.”
Scandinavian example of success
He says that Lithuania has one success story in genre cinema, but it is not horror.
“‘Nobody Wanted to Die’ by Vytautas Žalakevičius. This film is controversial because of its subject matter, but looking at it from the cinematographic perspective, it is an absolute classic.”
‘Nobody Wanted to Die’ has been at the centre of debates in Lithuania for an extremely long time. A film about the post-war period of the Soviet occupation, and the Lithuanian partisan resistance, it has been accused of being a tool for pro-Soviet propaganda, if only for the fact that it got approval from censorship authorities. It also allegedly defames men who became anti-Soviet guerillas.
However, it is undeniably very high-quality filmmaking. ‘No One Wanted to Die’ is praised for its cinematography, directing, acting, and probably every other filmmaking aspect. It is often called the best-known Lithuanian film, both domestically and internationally.
“And it is a western,” continues Klivis. “How did Lithuania make a western, of all things, in 1966? It is incredible, but also goes to show that everything is possible.”
However, Klivis still thinks that Lithuanian filmmakers should stick with what they do best.
“And we are doing well with comedies,” the professor notes.
“But it is not the genre that you can sell easily. Film marketing in Lithuania is very advanced, maybe even more so than the actual film industry. But it is easier to sell horror franchises in foreign countries.”
While most audiences respond to horror in similar ways, humour, according to Klivis, can be very context-specific. Lithuanian comedies are funny only to Lithuanians.
“Of course, a breakthrough with new genres, such as horror, crime, and maybe thriller, would be a huge improvement,” admits Klivis, quoting the hugely successful Scandinavian crime films and series.
“Scandinavians are so good at this, it even makes me jealous. But I believe we can also achieve something similar,” said the professor.