Thursday, May 19, 2022

Chas oborotnya (1990) (TV)

... aka: Час оборотня
... aka: Hour of the Werewolf, The
... aka: Werewolf Hour, The

Directed by:
Igor Shevchenko

Fifty-something widower Grigory Maksimovich Kovalev (Mikhail Pakhomenko) works as a newspaper reporter. While he does well at work and is one of two primary candidates for a promotion to editor, he's not quite gotten used to all of his free time. On a personal level, his newfound lack of responsibility reminds him of the freedom of his youth yet he solemnly intones that once one gets further up in age that same freedom translates more to a feeling of loneliness. Grigory has a crush on the much-younger blonde Taya (Marina Starykh), who works as a typesetter in a factory located in the same building as the newspaper office (both are owned by the same guy). Even though he knows he doesn't stand a chance with her and his flirtations are entirely unreciprocated (more of a joke between the two really), they still enjoy each other's company on a friendly basis.

Grigory is kind and hard-working but also passive and something of a pushover, and may lose out on his promotion to his work rival - a cocky young blood named Gennady (Sergey Bystritskiy) - due to his more laid back demeanor. It's simply not in his nature to be aggressive or a go-getter. He's also older and doesn't have a formal degree while his competition is university educated. Even though it's difficult for him, Grigory goes to newspaper owner Petr Vasilievich (Vyacheslav Gurenkov) to put in a good word for himself before he makes his final decision. When he returns to work the next day, Gennady is hostile toward him. Petr has already told him all about his visit and their conversation. Petr then brushes off Grigory's outrage about being stabbed in the back and shoos him out of his office.

Meanwhile, there's been a strange, constantly-howling black dog seen lurking around the neighborhood that only seems to emerge whenever there's a full moon. The more superstitious locals claim it's actually an evil spirit and there have been several unsolved murders in the area that coincide with the dog's arrival. While waiting at a bus stop, Grigory is attacked and bitten by the animal and has to be taken to the hospital. During the next full moon he sprouts fangs and transforms into a "werewolf." And since there was no Rob Bottin or Rick Baker around, the "werewolf" here is basically just a regular old black dog. We do get one mid-transformation make-up job, which looks like a traditional werewolf.

Grigory's first victim is, fittingly enough, his competition at work. Gennady is chased up the stairwell of a high rise apartment building, gets knocked through a window and falls to his death on the pavement below. Not one to miss an opportunity, an aspiring writer (an extremely obnoxious one at that!) tries to weasel his way into taking Gennady's spot at the newspaper. Though Grigory can't exactly remember transforming and killing his colleague, he does see brief flashes of the murder in his dreams and suspects he may be the killer. He's also haunted by nightmares, like receiving his work promotion in a packed auditorium full of clapping, cheering people (including the zombie of his first victim) while transforming into a werewolf. When he discovers that the woman of his dreams may not be the nice, wholesome young lady he fell in love with, she's next up on the chopping block.

People usually aren't who they present themselves to be here and there's a lot of focus on local drunks, casual violence, miserable couples, dysfunctional families (Grigory's adult daughter [Larisa Borodina] and her apparently unemployed boyfriend still live in his home and have loud sex in the room next to his), arguments about money, squalid and cramped living conditions and someone begging for a dead man's job while the body lies in a casket before him. There's also a young man who tries to pay Grigory to bite him, and not because he suspects he's a werewolf. Though I'm not entirely sure what to make of some of this, a lot of it is clearly in the realm of social commentary, as if it's trying to pick at the ugly underbelly of the country at the time. It's worth noting, I suppose, that this was made when the Soviet Union was right on the verge of dissolution.

The film fares best when it's focusing on Grigory, his affliction and how it's altering his life, but then it makes the bizarre decision to divert attention away to Vasily (Aleksandr Baluev), the glum, dispirited local police officer expected to find and exterminate the werewolf. At first I though he was merely incompetent at his job but it turns out he simply finds it impossible to really care about doing it properly. The townsfolk hate him because he's a short-fused bully and he's not in very good standing with his own family either. He also happens to be Grigory's son. Some time is spent with him trying to track down an uncle, whom he harasses over a long-standing debt owed to the late mother. Again, I'm sure this is supposed to be some kind of metaphor for something or other, but it ends up pushing the werewolf stuff completely out for most of the last third of the film.

The amount of similarities between this and the later 70-million budgeted, Mike Nichols-directed Wolf (1994) are actually pretty remarkable. Both take place in the publishing world (one literary, the other periodical), making Washington Post critic Hal Hinson's praise of Wolf as "...the only one of its kind ever made - a horror film about office politics" far from true. Both feature an older, more passive male lead getting passed over for a promotion by a backstabbing boss in favor of a younger, less experienced colleague. Both feature the older star being enamored with a much-younger blonde (Wolf's Jack Nicholson was romantically paired with the 20-years-his-junior Michelle Pfeiffer). Both films eschew elaborate transformation scenes and make-up effects in favor of using the wolf metaphorically. And, most strikingly of all, both films feature the unassertive male lead's new wolf tendencies making him reexamine his life and do some soul searching.

Are all these similarities a coincidence? It's impossible to conclusively say. One would automatically assume that since this film was made a good four years earlier, that Wolf copied it. However, supposedly Wolf co-screenwriter Jim Harrison and Nicholson were trying to get that film made for twelve long years before it actually happened. That means they'd have been shopping this project around Hollywood starting sometime in the early 80s and scripts for the film would have been in circulation well before Werewolf Hour was made. Then again, Harrison later disowned the film for altering too much of his original concept and there was a second screenwriter brought on board (Wesley Strick), so who really knows for sure?

This was aired only a single time on the Soviet (soon to be Ukrainian) TV network Tonis in 1990 and then vanished into thin air. It never turned up on home video anywhere in the world after that and was thought to have been lost or destroyed for over 30 years. A print finally surfaced in 2021 and was released directly to Youtube. English subtitles are available.

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