Ever wonder what a movie like “The Bad Seed” crossed with “The Belles of St Trinians” and seasoned with more than a heaping helping of “Psycho” just might be like if it were done with an all Russian cast? Well wonder no more…. From the land of Borsht and Vodka comes “Yulenka: Deadly Lessons”. Neko’s been aware of this one for some time now, but it’s taken me a while to hunt down some decent English subtitles…. until now.
The simple synopsis goes: “Professor Andriy Belov moves to a small town from the capital, and from his university to a woman’s high school, so that his wife can get the treatment and air she needs. After a short time a the school, he begins to notice strange things happening to his students. The students in the fifth class don’t play with dolls, they delight in making a toy of human lives.
One day he finds a note reading ‘Save Us,’ and he begins to take action. As he investigates, his life degenerates into a nightmare, and his only hope is a lone little girl, Yulenka….. or does something evil hide behind her innocent eyes?”
This is another of those odd little films for which your Favorite Catgirl ends up spending her odd hours searching high and low for subtitles when the original DVD lacks them. Sometimes I find them right away… other times it take a while… sometime it takes an excruciatingly looonnggg time. These ones required me to delve into some fairly odd places in the former Soviet Union, but my perseverance has finally paid off, and so now…. with some fairly accurate fan-translated subtitles in hand and a copy of the Region 5 DVD…. “Yulenka” is finally mine!!
Was it worth all my silly efforts (not to mention a fair amount of Bablefish translation of Cyrillic Russian)? Guess you’ll have to “Read On” to find out!!
“Sugar and spice… and everything nice…” At least that’s how cute little girls usually get described at that tender age, anyway. But… apparently not all of us were made using that particular recipe…. This movie is about just such a sweet lil’ girl…. and the nasty, wickedly evil things she gets up to. No hopscotch, tea parties, or barbie dolls for lil’ Yulenka… oh, no sir!!
This one starts off in a morgue…. a nasty, rat infested, dark and dank, post Soviet era sort of morgue…. (Makes me really certain I don’t ever want to end up dead in Russia…. Ewwwhhh!!) and a rumpled police inspector being shown the body of a recent murder victim. Not your usual sort of killing… this poor guy has had his entire spine removed. It’s the sort of killing our detective hasn’t ever seen in his career and it leaves him at a loss to understand just what sort of murderer he’s looking for. Gruesome stuff… and just the sort of case any policeman dreads.
But… more on that later, because now we flash-back to our hero, Andriy Belov, his girlfriend Lera and her daughter Nastya as they cross a decrepit old ferry on the way to the exclusive private girl’s school where he’s accepted a teaching position. There’s some bit about how the air will be good for Lera… seems she’s subject to bad asthma attacks… but you get the sense that other reasons might have led to Andriy leaving the city, and his studies towards his PhD to take a lower paying, less prestigious position waaay out in the middle of nowhere. However… don’t wait around trying to find out what… they never really go anywhere with that subplot. He’s all upbeat… but as they pass a picturesque part of the river, you get the first hints that things here aren’t going to be good…. a rotting corpse hidden away unnoticed along the river’s edge. If only they’d paid more attention, they might have avoided the nasty stuff to come…
At the school, Andriy is welcomed by the Head Mistress/ Principle…. and we get another “Red Herring” as they talk about how initially suspicious they were about his application, given the step down for him that it represents… but again, ignore all that, they don’t go anywhere with it…. too bad, given that it might have spiced up a later event in the film. Despite their original reservations, he gets given a homeroom class along with Nastya, and starts right in teaching literature to the apparently innocent little schoolgirls. The girls all seemingly take to him, enjoying his lessons and acting like just like typical youngsters at that age. Then things start going wrong….
He first witnesses a vicious attack and beating on one of his girls by others in her class. When confronted about it… they go from nice little girls to stone cold thugs, freezing him out and letting him know he can do nothing to stop them from doing whatever they like. Worse…. he discovers one of the girls, Sonya, appears to have recently committed suicide by jumping out of a window at the school…. but there’s a reluctance to talk about it, and he soon comes to think it might not have been a suicide at all…. Yep, you just know this is gonna get worse….
All through this, Lera supports him, so happy to be on the verge of becoming a family, that living in a crummy apartment in the boondocks where her work as a photographer is just about useless is all worth it. Even her daughter Nastya is happy… she likes Andriy and wants so badly to be able to call him “daddy” for real… just as soon as he and her mom get married. She’s even made a new friend at school…. little Yulenka, who seems to be one of the few girls in class not part of the silent “evil conspiracy” that haunts Andriy at night as he imagines Sonya’s death over and over in his nightmares.
Yulenka is a bright young girl, intelligent far beyond her years…. serious and seemingly troubled by the loss of her father in a car accident years before. Now living alone with her mother, she seems badly in need of a “father figure” to help her cope with an isolation from her peers. Andriy becomes immersed in this, becoming more and more entangled by circumstance and the losing battle with the desire he feels towards her sexy widowed mother as well. Big… big… mistake.
Eventually he trips up and has a passionate sexual encounter with Yulenka’s mom…. all part of Yulenka’s very own psychotic scheme to create her own “family” at any and all costs. From this point on, all gloves are off. Yulenka begins an open war of wills with Andriy, telling him he’ll drop Lera and Nastya to be with her Mom and her…. or else. Naturally the stupid fool ignores her warnings. But Yulenka isn’t kidding. Nope…. not at all. She starts off by having her “gang” of girls firebomb his apartment while they were sleeping. Yeah… now THAT”S really subtle….
For some goofy reason… this attack is never adequately investigated by the police… if you can believe it… and so he is forced to try and get evidence against Yulenka and the girls from the victim of the beating. Stupid move… Yulenka just arranges an “accident” that nearly kills the girl in a horse riding exhibition. We never see that girl again… Ok… ok… how about reasoning with Yulenka? Nope. That just ends up with her telling him the grisly little story about the last guy her mom was involved with. A sensitive traveling artist who stayed with them for a summer… only to break her Mom’s heart by planning to leave them. A simple drugging and a drowning in the river later and we now know why Sonya died. Seems Yulenka needed drugs for the killing that only Sonya’s mom had access to in her job as a surgeon. A few threats later and a frightened compliant Sonya became one of those people who “knew too much”…. Got it?
Unable to convince him to get with the picture, Yulenka moves to eliminate the remaining obstacles to what she desires by first trying to kill Nastya… arranging for her to be in a deserted courtyard where a viscous dog nearly savages her to death. After that… to split Lera away from him she lures Andriy to a meeting in a deserted wing of the school and when he fails to go along with what she wants, plays the particularly nasty card of screaming and accusing him of child molestation. This particular idea…. while certainly a perfect way to punish him…. is actually one of the weakest elements in the film. Yulenka is portrayed as a genius with an unbelievable cunning…. and these charges, had they stuck or not, would have resulted in Andriy never being allowed within a 1000 miles of her and her Mom… hardly the way to force him into ever becoming part of their family. It would have only worked plot-wise, I think, if they had included a similar scandalous accusation as part of the reason he had to change teaching jobs earlier on…. but nope, they don’t use that idea. This particular notion is also quite unnecessary given Yulenka’s next trick….
You see, even the police don’t even buy the accusation for a moment…. and the inspector tells him they suspect something is up with the girls and their corroborating stories. Given the earlier firebomb attack, they let Andriy go… advising him to just leave the school before something worse happens….. great police work, eh? But Yulenka’s been a busy, busy little psycho…. and while he was in jail and Lera was at the hospital with Nastya, sneaks into their ruined apartment long enough to post about a jillion pictures of him and her mom having crazy wild sex for Lera to find when she gets home. Apparently Yulenka is also quite the budding little photographer as well. Oh… and there’s a gun to steal from Andriy’s manservant too….. Poor, poor Andriy…. he’s in deep shit now.
Sigh…. You just know Lera doesn’t take the photos well…. She and Nastya are both gone when he finally gets released from jail. We never see them again…. but at least they survive this film. Andriy’s manservant offers to go after them… but later we see a TV report about how a terrible accident with his car has resulted in his death. Hmmmmm? Genius… photographer…. and now auto mechanic… is there anything this lil’ girl can’t do? Well… yeah. She’s not a brilliant surgeon. But…. luckily she’s remained the only friend that Sonya’s poor insane mother still has since she went… well… a little bit crazy and tried to kill the teachers at the school over the death of her beloved dear little girl. Yulenka has been visiting her at the asylum regularly…. and when she tells Sonya’s mom that she knows just who was responsible for Sonya’s death, it’s not hard for her to escape and be convinced to perform horrible surgery on Andriy as revenge once Yulenka gets him drugged, bound and gagged waaaay out in the lonely woods where nobody will hear his screams.
Ah!!! So it turns out he’s the guy in the morgue with the missing spine from the beginning of the film….. Yep. Oh, yeah…. and a crazy lunatic with a hatred of teachers is the perfect patsy to blame all this mayhem on if you can convince her that suicide by gun will reunite her with her daughter in Heaven. Seems all this leaves us set up nicely for “Yulenka 2: Daddy’s Little Girl”…… Yep, I can definitely see this film coming back for more. (Pssttt! Russian guys….feel free to use the title….. Neko’s feeling generous!!)
So…. what did I think of “Yulenka”? Hmmmmm…. well it’s actually a pretty good film, all little quibbles aside. The plot was a bit simple, had a few inconsistent holes, and borrowed heavily from a few earlier films… the “Bad Seed” springing to mind… but was enjoyable overall for me, given that I’m not a big fan of serial killers or psycho killers. I think that the standout had to be Darya Balabanova’s performance as Yulenka. She’s a very good little actress, and could give me serious goosepimples with a single creepy look that told you she meant business. Marat Basharov wasn’t bad as our hero Andriy, but wasn’t spectacular either being easily out-shined by his young co-star. Most of the other performances were adequate if not inspired, resulting in a very nice little thriller overall. Your favorite Catgirl liked it, as did Carolyn, and both of us could agree that it deserves a nice 3 “Meows” out of 5 with a special purr of appreciation for little Darya…. I’m going to be looking for her to turn up in future films from Russia.
The DVD? Well…. I actually saw this one on a Region 5 release, in PAL format, letterboxed and with some fansubs that I located on an obscure Russian film forum. While not perfect, I was able to fix them a bit for grammar and context enough to make them usable. You, gentle readers, all should definitely wait though, as I’m thinking this one is a natural to get either a decent Region 1 or 2 release soon with good subtitles and maybe even an English dubbing. If so, Neko says it’s a “don’t miss”.
Trailer? Yep… not a problem! Here ya go!! Enjoy!