Viy: Gothic fairy-tale horror film of Cossacks and seminarians threatened by witches, vampires and demons

Georgiy Kropachyov and Konstantin Yershov, “Viy” (1967)

A rare 1960s Soviet film in the horror genre, “Viy” is more Gothic fairy tale than a straight horror film, due to its close adaptation of the original short story by 19th-century Ukrainian / Russian author Nikolai Gogol. Yet the film itself has the look of many horror movies made in the West at the same time with lots of colour, some excellent photography and a staged look to the sets. What makes this movie different from contemporary horror films is that the story is steeped in the culture of the people and time from whom and which Gogol was inspired to write his story. The setting is in rural Ukraine some time in the 1300’s or 1400’s when Slavic-speaking people settled in the eastern and southern parts and inherited customs and folkways from people already living there that became the basis for Cossack culture. An Orthodox seminary breaks up for holidays and the students walk to their homes: three of them decide to take a short-cut across some fields but get lost. One student, Khoma (Leonid Kravulyov), stays at a farmhouse and meets an old witch there who tries to ride him like a horse; he beats her severely and runs away home. Later he is contacted by his seminary to be told that he must say prayers for a Cossack chieftain’s dying daughter (Natalia Varley). He is forced to travel to the village where the chieftain and his family live and discovers to his dismay that the girl is not only now dead but may be the incarnation of the old witch. The chieftain compels Khoma to stay in the village and say prayers for three nights for the girl who specifically requested the young man’s presence before her death. During his stay, Khoma gets drunk, acts stupid and tries to escape but the chieftain and his servants make sure that every night for three nights running Khoma is in the dilapidated church next to the young woman’s bier reading and chanting prayers.

The first half of the film builds up steadily to the moment when Khoma’s three-night ordeal begins; there isn’t much to attract people looking only for horror but for parents and children watching together, the scenes of past peasant and religious life in a faraway country will be of interest. The character of Khoma is clearly established: he’s young and not particularly devout, and he likes to drink and have a good time with the other seminary students. By the time he starts his nightwatch, viewers already have a clue his faith in God is shaky and there’s a good chance he won’t last the three nights. The villagers look up to him and call him “philosopher”, the chieftain is more suspicious of him but insists on his presence as the daughter had asked for him by name. The teachers at the seminary treat him as a bit of a fool. Apart from Khoma, everyone else plays support but the film is all about a test of one fallible man’s character and faith when surrounded by evil. Kravulyov perhaps looks too healthy and robust to play a fragile, naive youth but his portrayal of Khoma as perhaps not too bright and very out of his depth in the real world away from the shelter of the seminary is very good.

And what evil there is, in the second half of the film – the special effects might not be great by the standards of horror films made outside the Soviet Union and eastern Europe in the 1960s but they’re adequate for “Viy”: the girl’s coffin flies through the air in circles, giant hands emerge from the walls and floors and deformed creatures literally crawl out of the woodwork to menace Khoma. They cannot breach the circle of chalk he has drawn around himself so they call for Viy, the biggest and most evil demon of all, to break through the magic protection sustained by Khoma’s rapidly fading courage and confidence. Some of the acting probably needs to be more overdone, the demon make-up and costuming are at once hokey and scary, and Viy does look like a laughable carnival freak but the demon attack on Khoma is truly frightening though not at all gory. The animated skeletons and a close-up of a cute bristling monster weasel are major highlights. The filming method used in the horror scenes is outstanding with the camera continuously circling around Khoma or the flying coffin to create a sensation of delirious fear, dizziness and helplessness.

Apart from the use of special effects and the constantly rotating camera during the nightwatch scenes, the cinematography isn’t very remarkable though it does show the colour and flavour of rural Ukrainian life of several hundred years ago very well. The aerial riding scene is good with aerial photographs of lakes and forests whizzing by in the background behind the witch and Khoma to suggest the couple’s speedy flight. The music soundtrack by Karin Khachaturyan is notable with very screechy violin strings in parts and softer, more bell-like tones in other parts.

Viewers will note a sexual subtext to the story: the witch’s ride can be read as a metaphor for seduction or rape and the chieftain himself suspects Khoma of having had sexual relations with his daughter. He knows Khoma is poor and tempts him with the promise of a thousand gold coins in payment if the young man can sit through the three nights with the girl’s corpse so the night-watch is as much a test of his self-control and honesty as it is a test of his religious faith. Perhaps if the film-makers had deviated from the original short story during the horror scenes and allowed the witch to try to seduce Khoma and tempt him with pleasure mixed with terror, the film might have become an artistic work in its own right that appeals to all audiences and not simply a retelling of a story with fairy-tale elements.

There aren’t many horror films that mix horror with dark fantasy, folk-tale elements and an examination of human nature and superstitious cultures, and put them all in a world that’s at once ordinary yet fantastic enough that witches, vampires, demons and werewolves can live there and “Viy” remains a good example of what’s possible with that kind of fusion.

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