The Wild Hunt is a component of Western folklore that dates back as far as ancient times and spans most of the European continent. While its details change from region to region, its broad outline remains the same: A horrific procession of ghostly, mounted huntsmen -- a collection of restless spirits lead, in most cases, by a fearsome figure from either local legend or history -- that charges across a stormy night’s sky as a harbinger of coming catastrophe. Its influence can even be seen stateside in tales such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the song “Ghost Riders in the Sky”. Just how far it penetrated into Eastern Europe I can’t say, but it was clearly enough to influence Belarusian author Vladzimir Karatkievich’s popular 1964 novel King Stakh’s Wild Hunt, which Karatkievich and director Valeri Rubinchik would later adapt into the film The Savage Hunt of King Stakh.
King Stakh begins just as any gothic thriller wanting to put its best foot forward should: with a stranger seeking shelter from the storm at a gloomy estate whose inhabitants all seem to have a chronic case of the heebie jeebies. Said stranger is Bielarecki (Boris Plotnikov), a young academic who has come to the remote northwestern region of Belarus to study its local legends, and said estate, we learn, is called Marsh Firs. The mistress of the estate is Nadzieja Janowska, who, were this an Antonio Margheritti joint, would be played by Barbara Steele, but who instead is played by the lovely Elena Dimitrova. Much to the consternation of the estate’s manager, Gacievic (Albert Filozov, I think?), Nadzieja tells Bielarecki that, if it’s bogeys he’s looking for, he’s hit the jackpot with Marsh Firs, where, according to her, “there are more ghosts than live people”.
And just as she says, it turns out the estate is troubled by a host of spectral entities, including a ghostly lady in blue and something they call “The Little Man”. But by far the worst of these is King Stakh’s hunt. Stakh, we’re told, was a despot who ruled over the region during the 17th century who was assassinated by an ancestor of the Janowski’s while out on a hunt. That ancestor then strapped the corpses of Stakh and his hunting party to their horses and sent them galloping off into the marsh. Stakh, however, still had enough life left in him to proclaim a curse on the man and all of his descendants. As a result, the ensuing years have seen the Janowskis visited by calamity after calamity, all heralded by the sight of the King’s macabre posse. Such has been the toll that today the only remaining heirs to Marsh Firs are Nadzieja, her uncle Dubotowk, his ward Vardna (lauded Russian stage and screen star Boris Khmelnitsky), and Nadzieja’s widowed aunt, Mrs. Kulsa (a laudably creepy Valentina Shendrikova), who has been driven mad with fear by the ordeal. It also explains the presence in the mansion of an old crone who, when we first see her, appears to be attempting some kind of an exorcism on Nadzieja.
Bielarecki, of course, is a man of science, and initially scoffs at the notion of such apparitions in “the age of steam and electricity”. Yet, once the inhabitants of the mansion start to turn up murdered -- and the local constabulary prove all too eager to write it off to mundane causes -- he becomes obsessed with figuring out just what exactly it is that the Janowskis are really seeing. He becomes even more deeply fixated once he himself starts to experience otherworldly phenomena, speaking of wanting to “feel ghosts with his hands”, and finally, upon personally being chased through the bog by the King and his coterie of mounted phantoms, becomes just as freaked out as everyone else.
As directed by Rubinchik and lensed by Tatyana Loginova, The Savage Hunt of King Stakh luxuriates in gothic atmosphere, putting it in good company with the aforementioned Italian thrillers of Margheritti et al, the AIP Poe films, and Hammer’s horror friendly take on The Hound of the Baskervilles. In contrast to those, however, it also boasts elements of stark modernism. A good example of this can be found in Yevgeni Glebov’s musical score, which alternates between lush romantic themes and an almost industrial minimalism -- while some of the film’s most frightening scenes conspicuously forego any accompaniment at all. The film also shows an affinity with traditional Russian fantasy cinema by embracing a kind of gauzy surrealism, lending the events a dreamy, oft times eroticized quality that’s well suited to the fog enshrouded marshland setting.
All of the above makes King Stakh a film that is, if not especially terrifying, nonetheless unsettling and darkly compelling. The cast, most of whom are charged with presenting varying levels of perturbation, do as fine a job as you’d expect from such a typically staunch ensemble of theater-trained Soviet thespians, taking things just enough over the top to add spark without plunging us over the precipice into camp. If you are a fan of haunted looks -- either giving of receiving them -- this is definitely one worth settling your troubled gaze upon.