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NYC Horror Film Festival Review: “III”

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Right from the get-go, Pavel Khvaleev’s III is a film uninterested in presenting a straightforward narrative, instead opting for a gothic, surreal puzzle that blends fantasy and reality with a mind towards the bigger picture. In fact, as a whole, III is the kind of film that makes bold choices in almost every regard: plot points, cinematography, FX and subject matter all present something a bit more in the vein of risky, stark art house fare as opposed to what genre fans may expect. And while there is something refreshing about that attitude, especially considering how gorgeous the film’s fantastical elements can be thanks to these gambles, there is also an overall lack of life in the quixotic, polarizing narrative of III.

Of course, III is not exactly a film about the living, either: the story follows a pair of sisters whose mother dies after a long bout with an unknown illness. Soon, one of the sisters begins to suffer, and in an attempt to save her from quarantine and certain death, the well sister takes her to a monastery run by an enigmatic priest. Soon, the priest offers an unconventional method of saving the ill sister, realizing that something darker might be at play inside the mind of the dying girl and that something much more sinister is making the girls play right into its trap.

A mix of Gothic fairy tale, psychosexual surrealism and contagion drama, III is not necessarily the easiest film to follow, especially when one is bombarded with certain imagery whose relevance isn’t entirely apparent. That’s not to say the film is bad, but what often results is something more fascinating in nature than outright entertaining, especially as there seems to be no set boundaries or connection from one nightmarish dreamscape to the next even if they all take place in the same headspace. Compounded with a third act twist that attempts to link the film to its mysterious opening sequence, III is the kind of film that should be the kind of dark fantasy that compels and disturbs but instead settles for being mildly creepy and slightly otherworldly.

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A German-Russian co-production, III is the second feature of director Khvaleev, who is clearly a visually driven storytelling with an eye for the surreal and striking. Alongside cinematographer Igor Kiselev, composer Moonbeam and SFX make-up artist Evgenia Zakharova, Khvaleev (who also serves as editor and VFX artist) crafts a film in the vein of Andrei Tarvoksy and Alejandro Jodorowsky, especially considering the themes of faith and death that echo throughout the fantasy elements. However, the script from Aleksandra Khvaleeva is problematic in that, instead of sticking with the minimalism and going for something much more inherently philosophical and emotionally visceral, III instead opts to tie everything together with an out-of-left-field villain monologue and ominous ending that ultimately detracts from the whole experience.

However, for a film that puts style far above substance, Khvaleev does prove himself a rather adequate actor’s director. Polina Davydova is rather fantastic in her role as the caring, sacrificial older sister, guilt ridden by decisions made whilst her mother succumbed to the illness. Meanwhile, Lyubov Ignatushko is great as the dying younger sister, providing an idealistic, vulnerable performance that can turn into foreboding and creepy at a moment’s notice. The only wild card of the cast would be Evgeniy Gagarin, who provides an otherwise excellent performance that gets marred by frustrating plot developments.

While beautiful and occasionally scary, III doesn’t quite have the provocative, emotional edge of an art film nor does it have the suspenseful eeriness to qualify it as a memorable horror offering. While some- in fact, likely many- will embrace Pavel Khvaleev’s nightmarish vision, others may find much of the goodwill earned from the first two acts gone by the time the end credits roll. Still, the film may be worth the watch for those who want to absorb the gorgeous fantasy at hand, as long as they bring along a sizable patience while leaving logic at the door.

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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