1967’s Viy is often described as the only horror film made in the Soviet Union. In truth it’s more like a fairy tale than a horror story, more Grimm than grim – bum, tish – though in the final haunting sequence things definitely start going bump in the night.
Odder than its solitary genre status is the fact that it’s a film with religion at its core. The USSR did not do god. Yet Viy is suffused with religious symbols and practices, beliefs and lore. There’s a good deal of paganism too, which the scientifically minded USSR wasn’t very keen on either. The original story was by Nikolay Gogol, who claimed it was lifted from folklore. This was untrue but it probably helped seal the deal when it came to getting a greenlight from the Soviet censor. Plain, honest working-man’s folklore=good. Fancy, arcane opium-of-the-people religion=bad.
It’s a short film (77 mins) and the plot is simple. Khoma is a lusty, carousing trainee priest on his way home from the seminary to spend some time with his family. Needing a place to lay his head for the night, he implores an old woman to let him stay with her, in a barn or a loft or wherever she has a space. She turns out to be a witch and, having seemingly attempted to take advantage of Khoma sexually (the story looks like it’s going into Geoffrey Chaucer territory here), she rides him (literally) into the heavens, on his back with a broomstick clutched in one hand. Incensed, Khoma beats her nearly to death, whereupon the old crone turns into a beautiful young woman.
Days later, back at the seminary, the young man is summoned by his abbot and told that he’s been called by name to attend to the dying daughter of a local dignitary. This seems odd – a dignitary requesting a student priest.
The daughter at death’s door turns out to be the same witch/young beauty, and by the time Khoma gets there she is dead. His task now morphs into standing vigil over the dead sorceress for three nights, to ease the passage of her soul into the afterlife.
This is the meat of the film, the three nights, being tempted and tormented by the witch, still lively for one so dead, and her cohorts of various monsters and ghouls (and special effects teams).
It’s a very well cast film. Cheeky Khoma is played by the likeable Leonid Kuravlyov. The female witch is actually played by a man, the gangly, bony and brilliantly nimble Nikolay Kutuzov, while Natalya Varley is as beautiful as she’s meant to be as the dead witch in her young state. Of much less relevance though still well chosen are the gaggle of old guys who attend to Khoma at his vigil. Ensuring he goes through with his three-night ordeal, they’re an impromptu guard, and a gaggle of expressive faces, big moustaches and fine fur hats. They also handily act as a bit of a Greek chorus and sounding board, allowing Khoma to express his inner thoughts (and any plot developments that need getting out into the open).
Vodka helps here, with scenes of drunken carousing the opportunity for boozy chit-chat. And when vodka isn’t being drunk it’s often being talked about. Oh those Russians etc…
The odd group scene wobbles but the acting is mostly excellent and the same can be said for the film’s technical aspects. There’s the occasional shaky pan or zoom but on the whole the camera is remarkably fluid and unobtrusive – it’s 1967 and massive rigs were still the norm, so it’s doubly impressive that something of this era, using that kit, is so light on its toes.
A skeleton jiggles about like a marionette at one point, reflecting the odd laughable horror effect (let’s face it, even Ray Harryhausen had trouble making skeletons convincingly menacing). But for the most part the supernatural sequences are undeniably atmospheric, and though you can see the joins, there’s a real imagination at work. Giant hands waving like seaweed from the floor, Khoma spinning around and around in the air, hordes of green-painted ghouls scuttling about in an unsettling way, just some of the triumphs of an almost homemade mix of physical effects and camera sleight of hand.
It’s all shot in Ukraine, which looks properly medieval and very fertile, with wide silty rivers winding across vast plains, while Karen Khachaturyan’s soundtrack roars and trembles and the Russian male voice choirs lament. The post-dubbing is one of those no-nos that takes some getting used to. Everyone’s acoustically dead voice has obviously been added afterwards, Natalya Varley’s by someone else entirely.
“A cossack doesn’t fear anything in the world,” Khoma says at least twice in the film, once to brace himself for the ordeal ahead, and once while he’s in mid-defence of life and limb using magic circles and other decidedly non-Christian methods. Though it’s otherwise devoid of any propagandistic message, this is probably the real reason why the film got made – as with Cossacks so with Communists, or so the regime hoped.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021