Russian film turns classic author into sexy supersleuth

Moscow (AFP) - A new Russian film aimed at a youth audience reinvents classic novelist Nikolai Gogol as a gothic-style detective who battles dark supernatural forces to solve a series of ritual murders.

Critics have queried the lashings of eyeliner, plumped-up lips and lack of historical rigour, while the makers say the film will breathe new life into the 19th-century writer's works for today's school pupils.

Mist swirls, black horses gallop through dark forests and naked witches leap over bonfires in the first film in a planned series of four, called "Gogol. The Start," which opened in cinemas on August 31 and will also be shown in an eight-episode television version.

The film is based partly on the author's real life, with references to his epileptic fits and a brief job as a clerk for the tsarist political police -- as well as to his fear of being buried alive.

In the film, Gogol works alongside a famed tsarist investigator, who is sent to rural Ukraine to probe a series of murders of young women.

The plot references Gogol's works, especially the spooky tales of peasant life collected in "Evenings on a Farm Near Dykanka."

Gogol -- whose most famous work was the novel "Dead Souls" published in 1842 -- grew up in today's Ukraine and was inspired by its folk traditions.

- Compulsory reading -

"We made up the possible circumstances in which Gogol wrote 'Evenings on a Farm Near Dykanka'," said producer Alexander Tsekalo.

"We linked up all the scary incidents into a sequence and gave them a single perpetrator, a serial killer, you could say," Tsekalo said at a press conference.

"Gogol, as he awaits a new investigator, is forced to investigate these crimes himself."

"All the rest is Gogol, and even the fact that he worked as a scribe in the Third Department (political police), and came to Dykanka in this job -- all that happened in real life."

Gogol's works are compulsory reading in Russian schools.

One of the film's scenarists Natalya Merkulova praised the film as "a giant step forward" for giving Gogol "new life".

He and other classic writers "hang in classrooms in big dusty portraits -- and everyone is sick to the back teeth of them," she claimed.

The film is being released in two versions, one with a 16+ certificate and another more graphic one with an 18+ age limit.

- Silicone lips -

Played in the film by 28-year-old actor Alexander Petrov, Gogol is pale and brooding with dark-rimmed eyes. He periodically falls into epileptic fits, waking up with the latest clue to the murders.

"You see what other people can't see!" says one of the characters.

He also enjoys lusty encounters with beautiful young women, some of whom have suspiciously plumped-up lips.

"I don't think they brought silicone to Dykanka in Gogol's day. I also don't think Gogol wore eye makeup," complained a reviewer in Vokrug TV entertainment website.

Interfax news agency in turn slammed the dialogue as lacking in historic accuracy, saying characters "talk like salespeople in a mobile phone store."

But the makers stress the film isn't meant to be taken too seriously. At a presentation of the film in Moscow, they wore T-shirts with the slogan "Sorry Gogol".

A promotional clip for the film shows an actor playing a flustered school teacher, who laments: "I never in my life expected to see Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol without his trousers on."

"The slight trashiness is intentional," director Yegor Baranov told Momenty, a regional entertainment site.

The film's poster shows Gogol holding a blood-stained quill, with the cutline: "The darkest hour comes before dawn."

Although the film's playing fast and loose with the classics outraged some, critics generally said the film worked on its own terms.

The reviewer for Vokrug TV concedes that if the series continues on the same level "young people could get a nice locally made horror flick."

"As a horror B-movie, it's not bad," wrote Rossiiskaya Gazeta government newspaper, citing the "nudity and disembowelling."