Film is a universal language. Some of my favorite movies are foreign language films. International horror is a delight. Yet, when I think of great horror films, I don’t instantly think of the former USSR. I’ve not seen a lot of Soviet-era movies (horror or not), a couple of Tarkovsky films have been pretty much it. I’ve not seen a lot of post-Soviet films either. Outside of the aforementioned Tarkovsky pictures, the only Soviet film I’ve seen was one presented on Mystery Science Theater 3000, so that’s, probably, not a very good example.
I’ve always been fascinated by the land of the czars, though. I enjoy books set there (Tom Rob Smith, I’m looking at you; Martin Cruz Smith, I’m getting around to your work) and I have enjoyed much of its literature and folklore. Said literature and folklore brings me to this week’s movie: Viy.
Viy is based upon Nikolai Gogol’s story, The Viy, which is based upon a Ukranian folktale. I’ve never read Gogol’s story, but if it’s half as entertaining as this 1967 movie, I’ll remedy that infraction.
Khoma is a seminary student. For the summer, the students who are able to, are sent home until classes resume. Khoma and two friends are travelling and, as night falls, they decide to ask permission to sleep for the night at a little farm they happen upon.
On the farm they are greeted by an old woman. A really old, really ugly woman. She agrees to them staying overnight and directs them to where they can sleep. Khoma is directed to the barn. In the middle of the night, the old woman comes to him, making some very unwanted advances. The woman climbs onto his back and rides him like a horse across the countryside. To Khoma’s horror, he finds they are soon flying through the air. The old woman is a witch, and the young seminary student is fearful for his very soul.
Upon landing, Khoma beats the old witch with a stick. As she is dying, the hag turns into a beautiful young girl. Khoma promptly runs back to school.
Before Khoma gets any time to recuperate from his ordeal (which he tells no one of), he is ordered to a nearby farm by the rector. A rich man’s young daughter is near death and has requested Khoma, by name, to attend to her. Reluctantly, he travels there to discover that not only has the girl died, it’s the same witch he left for dead.
For three nights Khoma has to read prayers over the girl’s body. It’s during these three nights that all hell breaks loose in the chapel.
I’m not saying Viy is a great movie (I’m not certain all the funny parts were intentional). What I am saying is it is an interesting movie to watch, and not just as a film-peek into a country’s formidable past. The special effects (by today’s standards, maybe even by 1967’s standards) are touch and go. Some of them had me wondering how they accomplished what they did. The story flows nicely, it has its creepy moments, and a couple of the set pieces are mind-boggling.
When Viy is on, it’s on. Some of its swings are misses, but when it connects, it hits a few homers.