Visions of Suffering
by Andrey Iskanov (Dir.)
Review by Rogan Marshall
Anthem Pictures DVD ISBN/ITEM#: B000HC2PLI
Date: 19 September, 2006 List Price $29.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Visions concerns a young man living alone whose sleep is increasingly disrupted by vivid disturbing dreams in which he is pursued through drearily tinted forest by frightening amorphous creatures. A wise telephone repairman explains that they're actually the spirits of people who died in their sleep, during the daytime, and while it was raining; he also gives the hero some helpful advice on how to protect himself from the "vampires" and keep them out of his apartment, since whenever it's raining, the creatures, which sometimes assume human form, escape from his dreams and into reality. Describing the story only covers about half of filmmaker Andrey Iskanov's psychedelic chamber epic, a long slow movie that spends a lot of running time exploring visual abstractions rather than story. Visions often wanders entirely away from the central narrative, indulging in semi-abstract montages of striking imagery sometimes far removed from any obvious relation to characters or events (though the plot does always "justify" this material, as dreams or hallucinations). Despite the impression you might have from some of the foregoing description, Iskanov's movie has much more in common with Koyaanisqatsi or Eraserhead, than Blade or Underworld.
Though Visions of Suffering is a strikingly original work that bears little comparison to anything, elements do recall Night Watch; last year's (much less experimental) Russian fantasy was also fiercely imaginative and unremittingly dark. Visions also reminded me of the Japanese cyberpunk classic Tetsuo the Iron Man; like Tetsuo, Visions of Suffering indulges in complex formal tampering, bending and distorting its story with surrealism, fragmentation, and other experimental etcetera, so thoroughly, that multiple viewings are required, just to "follow" everything, let alone sort out what it "means".
Another thing this movie has in common with Tetsuo is its scope, its perspective, which widens inwards, so to speak, rather than outwards; while an overwhelming amount of work is apparent on the screen, almost all of these thousands of man-hours just as apparently originate in the same individual, Mr. Iskanov, who wrote, directed, produced, shot, and cut this movie; he also created its practical special effects, played one of the leads, and composed some of the music. Iskanov's movie is largely shot within one apartment, which we can assume is his own; the wild uncanny imagination which sprawls broadly enough to give his "little" movie a genuinely epic feel, always plumbs psychological depths, rather than exploring geographical exteriors; even the club which seethes with drugs sex and violence in the corner of the narrative often seems like it's only a hallucination (tellingly, the place is named Delirium).
Visions is also, like Tetsuo, extremely visceral, full of ugly, disturbing imagery, assaultively arranged: Iskanov willfully attacks his audience with material that is difficult to take for reasons of content and structure or style, and sometimes he's brutalizing on both fronts at once. The sequence in which a girl is hideously battered at the club (it's a Ballardesque moment - apparently the beating is consensual, even "sexual", and a fascinated crowd watches without interfering) that goes on and on for subjectively endless minutes of screen time is only the first example that comes to mind of a trance-inducing conceit of pace Iskanov might have picked up from fellow Russian Tarkovsky, or maybe from the gore films of H.G. Lewis, whose prurient lingering on images of bloody carnage also bears some resemblance to this sequence (and while Iskanov's originality mostly masks his influences, when they do show, they tend to be genre horror). However, Iskanov shoots a lot more coverage than Tarkovsky or Lewis ever did, footage that is also heavily, carefully edited; if scenes and sequences sometimes seem to last forever, actual individual images always come at a frantic, fevered pace.
Among its many strange and remarkable qualities, Visions of Suffering does its homework as dark fantasy, and provides plenty of payoff as horror; the plot, though muddied and marginalized, is also original and engaging, and the special effects, which include extreme gore, heavy psychedelic animation, and digital monsters unusual and striking enough to leave me repeatedly open mouthed, are executed with a savage and thorough originality that it would shame me to spoil by description in detail. As art house cinema, Visions belongs on a shelf with a long line of wildly ambitious and deeply personal experimental features, among them the aforementioned classics Eraserhead and Tetsuo; but most of the fans it will find are going to discover and respond to Visions as design and effects-driven dark fantasy/horror. This audience must appreciate both genre horror at its ultimate edgiest, and experimental cinema at its most overwhelmingly abstract - not to mention an extreme level of graphic violence and spiritual darkness. Those who, like me, can get into things that push the boundaries along both these lines, might as well go ahead and buy this disc: chances are good that you're going to watch Visions of Suffering more than once.