Studio: VMI Worldwide
Director: Michael S. Ojeda
Writer: Michael S. Ojeda
Producer: Jeff Miller, Philip J. Day, Stephen Gregory Curtis, Kimberley T. Zulkowski, Oksana Orlan
Stars: Corbin Bernsen, Oksana Orlan, Kristina Pimenova, Lisa Goodman, Michael Robert Brandon, Alison Korman, Keenan Johnston, Gregory O’Gallagher, Yefim Somin
Desperate to give her daughter a better life, a mail-order bride marries a reclusive doctor hiding dangerous ulterior motives.
Considering that the life left behind includes Russian poverty as well as an abusive ex, moving in with a rich, retired American surgeon offers an upgrade in more ways than one. Anxious to provide optimistic opportunities for her young daughter Dasha, that’s the seemingly better choice facing Nina when an online bride-to-order service pairs her with Karl, a darkly charming suitor who comes complete with a luxuriously secluded mansion and suspiciously side-eyeing staff.
Writer/director Michael S. Ojeda, who previously provided sensationalized revenge with “Avenged/Savaged” (review here), often paints his sophomore thriller “The Russian Bride” with comically big strokes. Whether it’s Karl villainously smoking a hoagie-sized cigar like a goodfella, making “Frankenstein” the favorite film of a gentle giant mute brute, or having a Saturday morning cartoon thunder peal accompany every kill during the climax, thematic subtlety doesn’t much interest the filmmaker.
Instead, Ojeda remains curiously content to put every playing piece on the board in act one. Before Nina and Karl’s new marriage takes its first tumultuous turn, we’re introduced to a door demanded to remain unopened, a threatening dog that attacks on command, a pointed chandelier attached to a problematic chain winch, and Karl’s quaint comment, “I forgot to mention we have frequent power outages.” “The Russian Bride” doesn’t establish a gun so much as it lays out an entire Chekhov’s arsenal of future story beats, all within a few film minutes of Nina and Dasha arriving at Karl’s Getty-esque estate.
Even though tealeaves arrange so anyone can clearly predict specific events, the bigger picture’s exact nature stays closer to the film’s chest. “The Russian Bride” vaguely puts on an initial appearance of a Lifetime-like cautionary fable concerning a romancing rogue hiding an awful alter ego. Nina certainly seems to be unwillingly signing herself up for some sort of sadistic physical torture. While that’s partly true, suggestions involving a supernatural spirit, orchestrated executions, and imaginary whispers twist the movie into a larger mystery than its final reveals retroactively earn.
“The Russian Bride” isn’t exactly slow, and not necessarily uneventful either. Yet copious misdirects convolute it at the expense of sustained entertainment. An audience can’t invest in suspense when cliffhanging moments and various clues don’t coalesce toward a cohesive direction. It’s the movie’s foggy clarity keeping character sympathies out of arm’s reach.
As Karl, Corbin Bernsen gives enough energy, both internally and externally, to wind the film back up when stalled momentum releases slack. At a minimum, Bernsen’s scenery-gnawing performance fares more favorably than what would have been given by Eric Roberts or Malcolm McDowell, the type of economic go-tos who would have been gone to if the budget had one less zero. “The Russian Bride” treads enough water to bob above an average DTV thriller, and Bernsen’s presence provides the lion’s share of that boost, particularly when several side actors read as grimacing greenhorns playing momentary make believe.
One other thorn trying to take air out of the effort is occasionally sloppy cinematography. Likely the result of a tight calendar rushing coverage rather than outright thoughtless camerawork, lighting allows actors to regularly walk into overexposed hotspots or soft focus. Color timing issues noticeably mismatch shots in certain exterior sequences too. “The Russian Bride” otherwise benefits from imposing production design coming courtesy of gorgeously chilly outside grounds and grand interiors making up the cavernous house.
Had director Michael S. Ojeda reached more sparingly into his script’s belt instead of taking every tool out at the beginning, “The Russian Bride” would be better positioned for maintaining its mystery and tightening tension. A violently explosive ending makes up some ground lost on the winding path of plotting, although it also comes via a cocaine-fueled rage whose stripe of grindhouse campiness doesn’t synch with swaths of seriousness evidenced everywhere else beforehand. The final verdict sentences “The Russian Bride” to status as an unevenly midrange excursion into mild madness whose premise has bark, but whose bite needs to clamp with firmer follow-through.
Review Score: 55