MOVIE – “Viy (Spirit of Evil)”
DIRECTOR – Georgi Kropachyov, Konstantin Yershov
WRITERS – Georgi Kropachyov, Konstantin Yershov, Aleksandr Ptushko, and Nikolai Gogol (original story)
SIX DEGREES OF CAST & CREW
- “Viy” is based off of a folktale by Nicolai Gogol, one of the Soviet Union’s most enduring writers. The same story was also used by Mario Bava for his film “Black Sunday.” Viy the story was first published in 1835 in the collection “Mirgogrod.”
- “Viy” is widely acknowledged as the first horror film to be approved by the Soviet Union’s censors. The only thing that got it through is because of its literary pedigree; that made it less a horror movie and more an adaptation of a traditional Russian folktale. Thus it was adapted and no one got sent to Siberia.
- The company behind this film, Mosfilm, bills itself as Russia’s largest and oldest film studio. In addition to “Viy,” it is also the company that created and produced the classic 1925 silent movie epic The Battleship Potempkin by Sergei Eisenstein. Today, Mosfilm consists of 10 independent studios and is often called the Russian Hollywood. It is also the host of the Russian Oscars, AKA the Golden Eagle Awards.
While on a holiday from the seminary, Khoma Brutus (Leonid Kuravlyov) and two of his fellow students find shelter in the home of an old woman. She’s a little weird, so when she tries to put the moves on Khoma, he understandably freaks out. Then she climbs on his back like a horse and together the two of them start flying. Somehow, he freaks out even more. When they pair land, he grabs the nearest blunt object and starts beating the crap out of the witch who rode him like a mule. Even after she turns into a beautiful girl, he keeps clubbing, then runs back to the seminary for shelter.
As it turns out, the witch’s name is Pannochka (Natalya Varley), and she’s the daughter of a very rich Slotnik (Aleksei Glazyrin). Her dying words are to summon Khoma Brutus to do her prayer vigil. He’s got to get through three days of prayer; meanwhile, the witch has three days to lure the man who killed her out of the holy circle of chalk and get her sweet, sweet revenge. Will Khoma Brutus’s faith be strong enough to protect him from Viy?
For a movie from 1967, “Viy” has some stellar special effects. Given the limitations of the time, the limitatiosn of budget, and the limitations imposed by the Soviet censors, Viy manages to do a lot with a little. Some of the green screen and rear projection stuff isn’t very good (the flying scene, for example), but other moments, such as when the demons square off with the priest and the witch tries to break into the holy circle, are stellar. Moreover, the makeup for the demons and various monsters are also really good. It’s gray bodysuits and masks mostly, but they’re really good, broad masks that take normal facial features and exaggerate them to grotesque levels of creepiness. It’s simple, but it works really well, and they technique used to make them emerge from the walls of the church to do battle with the priest’s faith is very effective. Even now, 40 years later, the first appearance of the demons is chilling.
The acting, specifically the lead character played by Leonid Kuravlyov, is also very effective. As the days stretch on and he continues to not get any sleep, he slowly begins to lose his focus. By the third day, he’s a stumbling, weary mess, and it’s a credit to Kuravlyov that he’s able to communicate this with his face and body, rather than his dialogue. Khoma Brutus, a true Cossack, is not afraid of anything, at least on the surface. He talks tough, and that’s necessary, because otherwise he looks so much like Stephen Baldwin that I have trouble taking him seriously. Somehow, he manages to rise above that. As for Natalya Varley, she’s absolutely beautiful, and she’s got great crazy eyes and impressive mime skills. She’s also very fashionable, looking like a hippie before the USSR even knew what hippies were.
This is my first experience with Soviet horror, and I guess it’s a great first experience since it’s the first Soviet horror movie. That said, it has aged very well. I mean, it’s a little goofy when filtered through modern eyes, but when it works, it still works well. When it doesn’t work, it’s still a whole lot of fun (for reasons other than its capacity to instill terror). If you’ve not had a chance to experience “Viy,” then it’s worth checking out, if only to learn something about the other side of the Iron Curtain.
RATING – 4 creepy gray demons out of 5