Viy (Cert 15)
1 Disc/2 Disc Ltd Edition Blu-ray (Distributor: Eureka Entertainment) Running Time: 77 minutes approx.
It’s funny that people who believe in God always think He will save them from evil, yet they also recognise that He will punish them for their sins. One way to do that is to have them suffer at the hands of their sin, which is ironic if it kills them as that would make God evil right? Something to ponder…
Meanwhile, back in olden times, as a seminary breaks for the summer, philosopher Khoma Brutus (Leonid Kuravlyov) and a couple of friends head home, only to end up off the beaten track until they find a farm house owned by an old lady (Nikolay Kutuzov), who begrudgingly allows them to stay. During the night, she attacks Khoma and takes him for a flight, revealing herself to be a witch.
Kohma recites a prayer to break the spell to end the flight, then beats her with a stick, only stopping when she turns into a younger woman (Natalya Varley). Returning to the seminary, the Rector (Pyotr Vesklyarov) has a task for Kohma – the daughter of wealthy Cossack Sotnik (Aleksey Glazyrin) is barely alive from being beaten and has requested Kohma read her the last rites after she dies. Realising whom the girl is, Kohma relies on his faith to get him through the next three nights.
European folklore is an incredibly rich source for fantasy and horror tales, with the edge being that so many of these fanciful stories are based around religion. We may associate witches with magic and black cats these days, but in the past, they were an enemy of Christianity. Prolific Russian writer Nikolai Gogol was certainly intrigued by this and in 1835 published a volume of short horror stories, one of them being Viy.
Co-directed by directed by Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov, Vyi also holds the distinction of being the first horror film made during the Soviet Era, though its horror credentials are rather slight compared to entries from other territories. Hampered by restrictions both financial and political, the adapted screenplay manages to circumvent some censorship guidelines by playing up to the folklore aspect than Gogol’s text, whilst the budget restraints meant some derivation from this.
First of all, this isn’t an attack on religion, but its moral is a little ambiguous, perhaps saying that only the truly devout will be saved, as Kohma basically was a bit of a rebel in sticking to his vows. Not to mention he told Sotnik a huge lie in claiming he had never met his daughter before and maybe it was a message from God that she asked for him by name. We of course know differently, but does Kohma continue the ruse out of fear of God or Sotnik?
Having established Kohma’s deviance with his drinking, partaking of snuff, and being motivated by the 1000 gold pieces payday, there are also hints of possible psychosexual yearnings with him, implied in his interactions with the witch. When she rides Kohma like a horse before the flight, it appears he was enjoying the physicality of it with the witch on his shoulders, and breaking the spell was his guilt not escape.
And then there is the way Kohma stopped beating the witch upon her transformation. Was this because she was pretty or that this manifestation reminded him, witch or not, she was still female? Furthermore, Sotnik’s actions are a little suspect, as if maybe he knew more about this situation than he was letting on.
Per the request, Kohma must spend three nights in the small church to hold the vigil and recite the scriptures, ensuring plenty of Dutch courage is imbibed first. Spooky things happen that disarm Kohma but his faith – and magic chalk circle – prevent anything from happening, But come the third night, Kohma is a wreck, his hair has tuned white and he doesn’t know what to believe.
With practical special effects on a limited budget, this is where the film will live and die for some viewers. The green screen scenes veer between iffy and amazingly advanced; the flying coffin is great, effective in being spooky and a spectacle, but it is the climax with incredible costumes and make-up for the rogue gallery of monsters that make it all so charming from being more tangible than modern CGI.
Since the film runs for a swift 77-minutes, its slow pacing for the first two acts might put people off, the deliberate world building and scene setting doesn’t always appear to be laying the foundation for a huge pay off. In that respect, analysing the subtext might seem a tad spurious compared to the original novella which has a lot more content not covered here for reasons already explained.
Describing this as kitsch or quirky because of the period it was made isn’t quite accurate, as it only partially embraces the surrealness that was prevalent in art at this time; one can detect a possible influence on Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 freak out House in the final act however. Yet, this is a product of its time but would lose something were it remade today with improved technology.
Overall, Viy doesn’t scream “classic” in the truest sense for me, despite its historical and cultural status, but I do believe it might gain cult status courtesy of this great new Blu-ray release. It’s not just a fabulous HD transfer but the extras are enticing too. Short documentaries educate us about Gogol and for the discerning film buffs, the surviving footage from three Russian silent films is very exciting to see – shame the 1909 version of Viy no longer exists for inclusion.
If Viy has whetted your appetite, a 1990 Serbian remake entitled A Holy Place appears on a bonus disc of the limited edition only of this release, so you can compare and contrast if you wish. Unfortunately, I did not have this at my disposal for this review but I am curious about it after watching Viy.
Russian Language Mono
English Language Mono
English SDH Subtitles
Audio Commentary with Michael Brooke
Video Essay on Nikolai Gogol
Archival Documentary on Viy
Three Russian Silent Film Fragments – The Portrait (1915), The Queen of Spades (1916) and Satan Exultant (1917)
Newly Commissioned Sleeve Artwork by Peter Savieri
Limited Edition only
Exclusive Bonus Disc:
A Holy Place (Sveto mesto) (1990 Dir. Djordje Kadijevic)
Interview with A Holy Place director Djordje Kadijevic
Rating – ****
Man In Black