A horror tale from long ago Viy, although attributed to folk lore, was actually written by Ukrainian-born Russian writer Nikolai Gogol and first published in 1835 in his collection of creepy tales entitled Mirgorod.
The scary story was extremely popular leading to several filmic adaptations the earliest being in 1909 also earning the title of the first Russian horror film. The most recent was a big budget 3D spectacular made in 2014 staring Jason Flemyng and Charles Dance which although retitled Forbidden Empire and Forbidden Kingdom in other countries, was still based on Gogol’s original work.
The most important version of Viy though is the 1967 film from directors Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov, a faithful retelling using stunning practical effects from artistic director Aleksandr Ptushko, a master of stop-motion and innovative colour cinematography who has often been compared to Ray Harryhausen for his mastery of his craft.
Featured in Steven Jay Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, Viy feels far more modern than many might expect with its punchy pace and innovative imagery as well as its story which sees a philosophy student forced to face his greatest fear in a true test of faith.
Set in 19th century Russia we open on a group of male seminary students sent home for vacation who immediately abandon all forms of decency as they rampage and riot through the town, delighted to be away from the authoritative order of the Rector’s that teach them.
Three young friends from the school get so drunk they become lost late at night and seeking food and shelter they head to a farm house they spot in the wilderness. Finding a frail old woman inside they are allowed entry but told they must stay the night apart from each other, something none of them seem to mind, at first.
Led to the barn one of the boys, Khoma Brutus (Leonid Kuravlyov) is shocked when the wizened old hag attempts to seduce him disturbingly finding he is unable to fight back as the woman is a witch and she has put him under her spell. Bending him to her will she climbs onto his shoulders and rides him through the dark countryside and up into the stars as he curses and protests.
When they finally land Khoma takes his chance attacking the old woman with a club and savagely beating her even though she begs for mercy. Lying their critically injured Khoma is even more shocked when she transforms into a beautiful young girl (played by Natalya Varley) and he flees into the darkness and back to his school seeking protection.
Unfortunately Khoma has an unwelcome surprise when he arrives at the seminary as his Rector informs him he has been sent for by name to say prayers for a rich merchants dying daughter. Dispatched with no way of escaping the boy is horrified when he sees that the girl is the same one he meet and he is the cause of her death. Keeping the secret to himself he goes along with her fathers request to spend three nights locked in the church where her dead body lies, praying for her soul as she asked.
With a belly full of vodka and bravado the philosophy student starts his vigil determined to stay the course and gain the huge reward the wealthy merchant has promised him. Lighting candles and reciting prayers he thinks he will be safe inside this holy space however the witch he wronged is far more powerful and so is her cause. As she rises from her coffin so begins a battle between the pair that will push Khoma to the limits of faith and sanity the question being can he survive?
The excellent set up of Viy is instantly engaging with the plot speeding along and the horror increasing as it goes. The special effects including a flying coffin, unexplainable extinguishing lights and all the other beautiful magical mistresses powers, although old fashioned now, still hold up mainly due to the fantastic performance of Leonid Kuravlyov as Khoma and the true fear he conveys.
With the mayhem and sorcery exciting our imaginations and jangling our nerves, what stimulates the mind and soul is the complex powers at play in the plot. Although Natalya Varley’s witch is spoken of as satanic and empowered by the devil she is in fact the victim of Khoma’s injustice and insensitivity. Her quest for revenge is true whereas his faith is seriously flawed, shown repetitively in his weak, greedy and selfish actions as well as his constant drinking, debauchery and cowardice.
The idea that even on sanctified ground a witch can work her dark magic is a unsettling one and breaks many rules that other horror films even to this day often abide by. The message is clear, that God is not in His books, artefacts or paintings but inside us all and when one lacks true belief or lives a hypocritical life then they relinquish all Holy protection, allowing evil to run as wild in the outside world as it already does in their own inner thoughts.
And run wild it does with Viy delivering a third night of terror onto Khoma which sees all sorts of monsters unleashed including the ttitular character. All of them are wonderfully well realised and brought to life in a sensational nightmarish sequence that stays with the watcher long after the film finishes.
Brought to Blu-ray by the brilliant Eureka Entertainment as a part of The Masters of Cinema Series with a variety of audio options, brand new expert commentary as well as an archival documentary on Nikolai Gogo Viy also comes with a bonus disc including another Gogol adaptation, the 1990 short film A Holy Place, all of which celebrates the importance of the authors work.
As the first Soviet-era horror film released in the USSR Viy offers outsiders a tiny glimpse of what was going on behind the Iron Curtain during that period proving that even in an environment of censorship and repression, great works of art and terror can come forth given the right artistic minds.