Posts Tagged ‘Nikolai Gogol’

Whenever I look at vintage movies from those parts of the world where democracy was not, at the time, prevailing, the temptation is firstly to try and parse the film for giveaway signs of a political subtext and agenda, and secondly to see if I can make out any signs of the production having been influenced by something closer to home. Sometimes this is so obvious that you would have to not be paying attention to miss it, as is surely the case with the North Korean Communist Godzilla pastiche, Pulgasari; the appearance of a number of Soviet-made space operas in the late seventies and early eighties indicates a reaction to the success of George Lucas’ first stellar conflict movie, too.

But then sometimes… you see something which looks like a western movie of a certain kind, and feels like a western movie of a certain kind, but you’re still not entirely sure if it’s just a coincidence or not. Such is the case with Viy, a 1967 Soviet movie based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol. The thing about Soviet films is that they tend to be, if not exactly openly didactic, then powered along by a certain lumbering worthiness – it’s never just about crowd-pleasing entertainment with these guys. You would expect this to preclude certain genres entirely, and to a point you would be right – Europe and America got in on the ground floor as far as horror movies are concerned, making them from the dawn of cinema onwards, but the Soviet Union never officially released a horror film until this one. So it has a definite curiosity value if nothing else.

Viy‘s English title is generally accepted to be Spirit of Evil, which certainly fits. The film was directed by Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov – who, the credits take pains to assure us, are both graduates of the Institute of Advanced Film Directing. Well, that’s good to know. After appropriately ominous cobweb-shrouded titles, we find ourselves outside a seminary in Ye Olde Russia, where the rector is in the process of dismissing his rather high-spirited young charges for a holiday.

We follow three of them as they head home, across country, inevitably getting lost in the dark. Happening upon a small farmhouse, they prevail upon the old woman who owns it to let them stay for the night. All seems well until one of them, the theologian Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov), is – not to put too fine a word on it – assaulted by the crone, despite his protestations. (The fact the old woman is played by a man (Nikolai Kutuzov) just adds to the weirdness of the moment.) Eventually the old woman mounts Khoma like a horse, and he finds himself carrying her across the countryside – and then across the sky, as the two of them take flight! There is a surreal, nightmarish quality to this whole sequence which announces to the audience that whatever the differences in the Soviet approach to horror movie-making, Viy at least is worthy of attention.

As dawn is breaking, Khoma and the witch – for such she must surely be – return to the ground, at which point Khoma, being a well-trained and quick-witted theology student, attempts to bash her head in with a big stick, only stopping when the witch assumes the much more agreeable form of Natalya Varley, a young Romanian starlet. Khoma’s limits have clearly been reached and he flees back to the seminary.

It’s enough to make a theologian give up rambling, but Khoma’s travails have only just begun. The rector informs him that a wealthy local sotnik (basically a land-owner) has requested that Khoma – specifically, asking for him by name – come and recite prayers over the body of his daughter for three nights, the girl having recently been found beaten to death. Now you may be putting two and two together here, but Khoma does not, and agrees to do as he is requested (possibly with one eye on a big reward). So off Khoma trots to the sotnik’s estate, getting to know the locals along the way. He is a bit disconcerted that his host has ordered he be locked in the chapel with the corpse for the three nights he will be performing his priestly duties, but this is nothing to his alarm when it turns out that the dead girl is – yes, you’ve guessed it – the spitting image of the younger form of the witch that he killed…

Suffice to say that if this had been an American movie and made a few years later, ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’ would have been suitable soundtrack material. But it wasn’t, and I doubt the Soviets were ever really into Kris Kristofferson anyway. The meat of the movie is the three nights Khoma finds himself locked in with the corpse (or not) of the witch, and the various happenings which take place, but the script makes fairly big demands of the audience – a modern audience, anyway – by holding all of these back to the second half of the film. Viy is only just over 75 minutes long, but even so; take out the opening sequence with the witch and this is a horror movie with no horror in it for over half its length.

As noted, though, the stuff with the witch’s initial attack is probably intriguing enough to make most casual viewers stick around throughout all the atmosphere- and character-establishing material with Khoma and his journey, and it’s during this section of the film that one is most struck by the striking resemblance between Viy and many Hammer horror movies of the same period – Hammer actually did a couple of films specifically set in what would later become parts of the USSR, and they and Viy could have exchanged sets and costumes without anyone actually noticing (I should say that Viy seems to have been a slightly more lavish undertaking than the typical Hammer production-line job). Then again, Viy is a movie with a historical setting, based on classic literature, which is how the house of horror got started too; perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised.

The big difference is that Viy almost totally eschews the gory, more exploitative elements which made Hammer’s films so disreputable at the time they were being made – instead, it opts for a sustained atmosphere of eerieness and unease, that feeling of being trapped in a nightmare creeping back again and again. The surreality of Khoma’s experiences – which grow progressively more extreme and grotesque – is suggested with the help of some genuinely impressive special effects, some of which are probably better than anything in an equivalent western film of the period. There’s even the odd ‘how on Earth did they do that?’ moment, which is always the sign of an impressive gag.

I suppose you could argue there is a vague subtext about the fallibility of the church – Khoma is far from an exemplar of anything – but on the whole this does seem to have been a faithful attempt at bringing a story from th pre-Soviet period to the screen. It’s no more genuinely scary than most 60s horror films of this type, but it does have that pervasive atmosphere of rising strangeness and the climax is honestly worth the wait. As noted, you wouldn’t expect what was effectively the state studio of the USSR to have made any horror movies at all; the fact that Mosfilm produced something as distinctive and classy as Viy is a real but very pleasant surprise.

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