Young Katerina survives a deadly commercial plane crash that killed her mother. As the only survivor to miraculously to alive, she becomes the center of the public and media attention over the next 20 years. Now as a grown woman with a young daughter of her own, around the same age of her deadly tragedy, Katerina is about to embark on a plane for the first time to visit her mother and though past feelings leave her tense and scared, her daughter and her being a psychologists help soothe her fears…to an extent. The late-night flight during a snowstorm leaves half the cabin empty with only a few passengers and the flight dwindles the numbers even more when passengers begin to die off in mysterious random misfortunes. Lines blur between reality and the past for Katerina who’s about the relive the worst day of her life.
I consciously realize that all things Russian is likely on everyone’s blacklist at the moment with the unfounded war Ukraine, but anything not created by the authoritarian Russian governing body could be, more-or-less, independently controlled by the people of Russia who are, again more-or-less, against the bloody and unnecessary Putin-fueled conflict outside their country. So, when I sit and analyze Russian native Alexander Babaev’s latest film, a mile-high horror known as “Row 19,” I’m objectively looking at the artist and his craft rather than the possibility of a stalwart countryman just doing his propaganda duty for the motherland. In fact, there’s none of that latter statement present in Babaev’s paranormal 2021 thriller that touches upon regret and facing fears, penned in the debut feature film screenplay by James Rabb. “Row 19,” or “Ryad 19” and, in South America, “Passenger 666” is the high-flying, dark mystery of the air film from multiple production studios in KIT Film Studio (“Mermaid: Lake of the Dead”), Central Partnership, Monumental Film, and Red Media.
“Row 19” sets the stage with a handsome cast of ensemble characters boarding a sole frostbitten and nearly vacant plane bound for a destination that audiences know all too well will be a landing zone that is anywhere else, but the destination printed on their purchased tickets. A variety of character flavors is always a classic touch when elucidating an unexplained threaten situation. At the yoke is Svetlana Ivanova (“The Blackout”) playing the adult version of the Katerina who bested death being the only survivor of a deadly plane crash 20 years ago. Scarred not only on her leg but also in her head, Katerina vouchsafes herself into getting back on than massive flying steel horse with an internalized pep talk by way of her psychologist vocation who she also helps people with their own internalized issues. However, Katerina is not a very good psychologist when the cabin goes into a tailspin of unexplained death and disappearances. The impression from the film is that the script, at one point or another, had Katerina as a medical physician as she’s often called upon and looked toward by the other passengers to know what to do when a passenger faints or another passenger is burnt to a crisp. She also doesn’t help the matter when she claims to be a doctor (and neglect to mention she’s a mind doctor. I believe that warrants a case for malpractice.). In the adjacent row is the hunky former combat news reporter Alexey (Wolfgang Cerny, “The Red Ghost”) who makes small talk with Katerina and her daughter Diana (Marta Timofeeva) and yet, the suspected sexual tension between them became never present and never materialized. Instead, Katerina and Alexey go back and forth on their mental blocks that causes drug use and shaky hand syndrome, a welcoming change to a rather routine love interest path that’s been overtrodden in other films in similar plots. However, there’s never a full understanding of Katerina’s role in this topsy-turvy spin through realities that only suggests that Katerina has a mighty will that can’t be contained even for her own good. Anatoliy Kot, Denis Yasik, Irina Egorova, Viktoriya Korlyakova, Ivan Verkhovykh, Anna Glaube, and Yola Sanko as the Witch (yes, there is a regular Baba Yaga-esque in the character list!) round out of the cast.
The sky is the limit with airplane horror as the concept of inescapable terror above the clouds can be the most frightening experience for not only acrophobia or claustrophobic individuals, but for average joe passenger looking to earn extra flyer miles on their fear membership cards. We’ve seen zombies on a plane (traditional and Nazism), we’ve seen gremlins on a plane, and, hell, we’ve seen snakes on a plane. Now, Babaev introduces the spell-casting witch confined to the rows of the tightly packed, small, and uncomfortable airplane seats and served the Salisbury steak with a side of rancid bag peanuts. I can see why a witch would be pissed off as well. However, there’s more than what meets the eye in Babaev’s witch that isn’t just on an obvious killing spree because her inflight cocktail was a little watered down or because of something a little more worthy of a massacre. “Row 19” aims for misdirection in trying to get the audiences thinking one way by using sleight of hand but really a behind-the-scenes motive is kept in the dark for most of the runtime. Babaev keeps the momentum fairly charged by setting up individual character personalities with just enough of a touch of odd behavior to make the atmosphere feel foreboding and keep interest in the next key scenes of story progression and at the climatic reveal is where the director’s momentum takes a nosedive, losing the altitude and the cabin pressure of smooth flight with a bow-wrapped-gift exposition that takes all the air of the suspension.
Fasten your seat belts. Secure all lose items. Lift your tray table and lock it in the upright position. “Row 19” is about to take off and take flight on a Blu-ray home video release from Well Go USA Entertainment. The not rated, region A Blu-ray is presented in a widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio with a decompression of around 20-26 Mbps, rendering picture quality of this AVC encoded release better than expected from Well Go USA. Image is sharp, well-delineated, and abundant with the right amount of color, appropriately denoting flashbacks with a filtered color reduction with only the slightest of change by director of photography Nikolay Smirnov. The Russian language 5.1 DTS-HD master audio track is crisp and clear. A solid track, well-established, full-bodied fidelity track that hits all the right channels with the right balance. There is an option English dub as well as available English subtitles on the Russian track. The subtitles synch well, though fast, and are transcribe with no errors detected. The 79-minute feature comes with a static menu, scene selection, and zero bonus features, which is typically the case with these U.S. distributed Russian releases. “Row 19” is visualized phobic fear, a self-flagellation of trying to change the past with what ifs, and director Alexander Babaev instills a shadowy creepiness inside the cockpit of consternation, but stalls at the height of the film’s storytelling success with a wrap-it-up quick and loose ending.