More than any other form of storytelling, horror provides an opportunity of self-discovery through exploration of the darkest parts of ourselves. Sometimes this takes the form of a wordless, unstoppable shape, sometimes a clown with an acidic tongue, and other times a form that constantly comes for you no matter the distance or time. Horror uses these figures to represent the parts of humanity that are the worst of itself — all the pain, all the fear, all the suffering — so that audiences can feel a sense of catharsis. Other times, the horror is not in what someone faces, but what someone survives. Conceived by Michael Smiy, Austin Sepulveda, and James Heth with a first-time feature-length script from James Rabb, Alexander Babaev’s (Wild Cards 2), Row 19 borrows from several tropes to tell a different kind of horror story, one which makes you feel all the natural claustrophobia of confined spaces and all the aerophobia that comes from the loss of control at 30,000 feet to craft a rather unique tale of survival amid tragic horrors. Thanks to Well Go USA, Babaev’s Row 19 arrives on home video, letting audiences take to the skies under the guise of protection from the couch.
20 years after surviving a plane crash, Katerina (Svetlana Ivanova) boards a late-night flight with her daughter, Diana (Martha Kessler), to go visit Katerina’s father. Katerina’s able to combat her aerophobia with training she’s picked up as a practicing psychologist with a little medicinal help. She’s going to need everything she has as each of the few passengers onboard begin to face one issue after another. In trying to help where possible and keep her own child calm, Katerina doesn’t at first notice the creeping similarity between the shocking events 20 years ago and tonight. Is something coming to finish the job from so long ago or is it something else? Whatever is happening, it will require a fortitude Katerina isn’t sure she possesses.
I do not like flying. Period. I’ve flown from state to state, from one coast to another, to Costa Rice from the U.S., to Hawai’i, and I’ve even partaken in a trans-Atlantic flight. So I’ll do it, but I’ll hate every single second of it. The confinement, the unpredictability, the close-quarter contact with mouth-breathers who either take up all the room or never stop talking. I’m trying to survive the trip, please leave me be. I bring this up because Row 19 is almost entirely set on the plane with the majority of the runtime dedicated to the unnerving hijinks that Katerina must survive. Smartly, either in concept or from the script drafted from it, the film quickly establishes back story (the initial traumatic event), uses the credits to move us forward through time via various newspaper articles, and then uses a new interview to establish present-day Katerina within the span of minutes. This quick pace is assumed for the rest of the film, allowing the audience to feel invested in Katerina’s growing discomfort and allowing a reasonable doubt to form as to the truth of everything we’re seeing. This becomes an important aspect, not just because Katerina is essentially confronting her trauma on the anniversary of the incident, but because she’s doing it with her own daughter (mimicking the experience with her own mother which can be a trigger for a psychotic break all on its own) while taking medication known for hallucinatory side effects. Additionally, the script smartly keeps the body count low, enabling the characters to have more space to themselves and aboard the plane: it’s a night flight during a heavy snow storm where many flights have already been cancelled, so Katerina’s plane only includes two flight attendants and a handful of passengers. Cramped space, odd occurrences followed by untimely deaths coupled with a break in reality — there’s a mixture at work that demonstrates an ingenuity with space and an understanding of horror tropes.
It’s this part, specifically, which makes Row 19 worth checking out. The experience is sold as “Evil at 30,000 feet,” a claim made because it’s horror on an airplane, except it’s never really truly terrifying. I could certainly feel my anxiety rising, but that had more to do with my own personal discomfort with flying than anything. The opening of the film, where the initial incident is show to us, includes a young Katerina (Vitalia Kornienko) growing more and more terrified as a fire erupts inside the cabin while the engines themselves slowly burnout. In this sequence, we’re shown an old woman (Yola Sanko), sitting in the row behind Katerina, who begins chanting something while only the whites of her eyes are seen. Between this and an anniversary trip 20 years later, Row 19 feels like a strange combination of ideas, like Thinner (1996) meets Final Destination (2000). The question becomes: why did the woman appear to curse Katerina and why is the curse still coming for her? The answers to this are clever, helping to make Row 19 far more memorable and impressive than expected. Especially considering that the performances of the film are serviceable for what the script seeks to accomplish, the ideas of the execution are what matter here.
Sadly, as engaging as the psychological aspects are of this horror/thriller, there’re some technical aspects that throw things off a tad and it’s in the inconsistency of presentation. For instance, we know that this is a late-night flight and will take several hours, characters mention this, as do the attendants, so it’s safe to presume that it’ll follow the rules of most night flights and try to make the cabin as comfortable for sleeping as possible. Typically, this translates to the main interior lights being shut off so that passengers who want to sleep can, while others can use the overhead light. On this flight, in the absence of the interior lights, there’s a blue-green light. So, in one scene, Katerina and her daughter are bathed in that light while other passengers to whom the camera switches are lit normally, as though the interior lights are still on. One might explain this inconsistency as part of the cerebral nature of the film, that one shouldn’t trust what they see, but it’s an ungrounded notion when there’re no physical barriers, like curtains or doorways between the first class and business sections, that could explain a change in lighting with a change in perspective.
Because this is a home release, it’s worth noting that the film only includes previews for other Well Go USA releases, a trailer for Row 19, and an English dub, listed as “all-new” in the production notes. The trailer below uses the English-language dub to advertise the film and I couldn’t get into it, though that could also have been the frequent flashing lights in the trailer which can trigger a migraine. With that in mind, this review is conducted having seen the original Russian-language audio track. If subtitles aren’t your thing, in addition to a 5.1 Russian-language track, the English-language audio track also has a 5.1 option. There are, however, no behind the scenes featurettes to extend the viewing experience past the film itself.
Even with the clever application of tropes and engaging twists, Row 19 mostly suffers through inconsistencies in presentation and performances that don’t entirely grip you. Especially with the film running 77 minutes (with credits), you won’t feel like it’s a never-ending flight due to the solid pacing, but it’s not necessarily a journey you’ll want to go on again. The bummer of it is that the way it handles Katerina’s trauma is both with respect to the character and smart as a narrative tool.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital May 31st, 2022.
For more information, head to Well Go USA’s official Row 19 webpage.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.