“I summon the vampires! I summon the werewolves!… I summon Viy!”
I think of myself as a horror movie generalist – meaning I don’t focus specifically on one genre or time period. I like classic black and white horror films, Hammer chillers, slasher flicks, zombie movies, J-Horror etc. I generally don’t enjoy the so-called ‘torture porn’ sub-genre, so I avoid things like Hostel or A Serbian Film, but other than that I try and make sure I watch a variety – especially in October.
That does mean that I’ve got a lot to choose from, which also means stuff just goes under the radar or on the back burner. I still haven’t seen classics like Black Christmas, for instance, nor have I seen a tenth of the horror movies available from Europe or Asia or South America. Some of that is down to availability as well, but mostly it’s just… I don’t know about it or I don’t think about it.
Which brings us to Viy. Often spoken of as the first Soviet era horror movie, Viy is one of those films that I’ve heard about many times (most recently in Sailor Monsoon’s excellent 100 Greatest Overlooked Horror Movies), but have just never gotten around to seeing. Mostly I’d heard about the sequences featuring the witch and a cavalcade of monsters and the few screenshots I’d seen made it seem like a nightmare caught on film. I’d never really come across it before, however, and while I’d seen more recent Russian films like the Night Watch series I couldn’t seem to find a copy of Viy anywhere (except for Forbidden Empire, a more recent adaption of the same Nikolai Gogol novella, and also called Viy).
Until last night!
Streaming on Shudder, I think it’s a Shudder exclusive. There was a Blu-ray release from Severin earlier this year and I think the streaming version is from the same restoration. It looks very good, especially for a film made in the Soviet Union in 1967.
A class of seminary students is sent home for vacation. A group of three finds themselves lost as the sun goes down, but manage to stumble across an old farm house and an equally aged crone. She manages to find them space to bed down for the night. Later, she approaches one – Khoma, the philosopher – and puts a spell on him that allows her to climb on his back and force him first to run about, and then to fly! When she finally allows them to land Khoma brutally attacks the witch – for that is what he assumes she must be – until suddenly she becomes a beautiful girl. Horrified, Khoma flees back to the seminary.
Seminary students in old Russia were a lot less, I dunno, pious than I expected! Or maybe Viy is just more honest about how they really were. Khoma and his companions are thieves and opportunists, crass and craven. The film at this point is really less a horror movie and more a broad comedy – you expect people to break into song at any moment. (And they do on occasion, but it’s still not a musical.)
Soon a rich noble sends for Khoma by name. It seems his beautiful daughter is dying – and she has specifically asked for Khoma to read final prayers for her. Khoma is reluctant, but a threat and a promise of reward means he’s soon on his way. It’s not long before they arrive and he finds, to his horror, that not only has the girl died – she was the witch he had brutally beaten!
While all the characters are broadly drawn, they’re distinct and well played. It feels like a slightly older film, like something from the late 30s or early 40’s in the US, but within that frame it’s extremely well done, combining mood and humor with a great setting and characters. If you’re not used to films from that time it might take some getting used to.
Khoma is all about getting away, but the nobleman won’t have it. His daughter demanded Khoma read prayers over her for three nights and by God he’ll do it, or he’ll have a thousand lashes instead! And should he finish the job, the nobleman promises an equal amount of gold. Well, you can’t say the nobleman doesn’t have Khoma’s number – he’s apparently compromised of an equal amount of fear and greed.
And so Khoma agrees and he’s brought to the church where the girl lays in state and locked in. And this is where the movie really starts getting good. The church itself is a fantastic set, aged gray beams and iconography so faded as to almost be part of the woodwork. The first few scenes in the church I found myself distracted by the lighting and the camera work. It’s just great.
Khoma tries to buck up his courage, but this fails miserable when the witch rises from her coffin. He just manages to draw a holy circle around himself with some chalk before she moves about the church, arms outstretched, trying to find him. The circle, it seems, protects him from her both visually and physically.
Though Khoma tries to escape the next day he’s forced once again into the church. The second night is even worse, with the coffin rising up and banging against the confines of his circle! As the cock crows the witch screams out curses at him, and his hair turns white.
The third night is the worst of all, with demons summoned, skeletons dancing, enormous hands that rise up out of the wood grasping for Khoma while the witch dances and laughs. Until finally, unable to touch the praying seminarian, she calls on the dreaded creature Viy – a name that makes even the demons quake in fear…
The special effects are pretty amazing, particularly for the time. Some of the creature work is the equal of anything you might see today – or at least of anything you might have seen in 1967! The actress who plays the witch, Natalya Varley, is a standout – being the equal of any of the creatures in both presence and menace. The eponymous creature is, perhaps, the weakest of the bunch – a swollen mass with the longest eyelids you’ll have ever seen. The ending sequence is a nightmarish phantasmagoria of monsters, swirling camerawork and some of the most bizarre imagery seen on film.
The Bottom Line
Viy is absolutely worth a viewing, even if only for the last third of the film. I loved the whole thing – it felt like a folk tale, which of course it is. The lessons are – be kind to your elders, don’t be afraid of ghosts as long as the lord is with you, and never, NEVER look Viy in the eye!