Title: Viy (a.k.a. Spirit of Evil)
Director: Konstantin Ershov, Georgiy Kropachyov
Cast: Leonid Kuravlyov, Natalya Varley, Alexei GlazyrinVadim, Zakharchenko, Nikolai Kutuzov
Synopsis: Khoma, a rambunctious young monk is on leave from his seminary, he spends the night in a barn with an older woman who turns out to be a shape-shifting witch. Once Khoma beats her death, she changes form to a beautiful young lady. After fleeing the scene, he returns to the seminary where he’s requested to preside over the dying daughter of a wealthy merchant. Once Khmoa arrives, he realizes that the dead girl bears a resemblance to the witch he had recently slain, but he’s ordered to stand vigil and pray for her soul three nights in a row while her avenging spirit summons all manner of havoc on the simpleton monk who played a role in her passing.
Critique: I love discovering movies like Viy. This fascinating little slice of Russian folklore is a visual grab bag of playful, practical effects and fluid craftsmanship. Based on a story of the same name by Nikolai Gogol, Viy feels like it was made by a Mario Bava clone who was raised in the era of Soviet expressionism. The elevated visual sense feels like it was directed by a sure-footed veteran, but although Ershov & Kropachev had backgrounds in the Soviet film industry as actors and production designers, neither had directed a movie before. Nevertheless, they boast some visual chops and prove themselves capable of stringing together a taut narrative of folky horror and broad humor. Aleksandr Ptushko (famed director/stop motion animator) is credited as an art director, and given his credentials, I would assume he was a driving element behind the film’s aesthetic vitality.
The buildup is classic, and succeeding the first act when Khoma is left with the restless undead witch he “killed” for three nights, it’s as if we’re reintroduced to another three-act structure, with the stakes naturally raised in each ascension. It’s a bit liberating in a sense that Viy is the product of two filmmakers who aren’t auteurs. Without lengthy filmographies to compare and contrast, we have only this standalone movie, and sometimes that’s the best way to appreciate a film.
Though Viy is distinctly an exercise in genre instead of the political allegories we commonly associate with films from this time and place, the religious overtones are hard to ignore. The portrait of an irresponsible monk whose prayers fail to protect him against the marauding monsters carries a bit of a sting.
Looking at horror movies, I always want to see something new, and Viy truly has a transportative feeling. The film unfurls and it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Some have criticized the special effects and makeup as “outdated” but faulting a film (that’s nearly fifty years old) for using something as common as rear projection is just silly. I’m confident that anyone who appreciates creative monsters will enjoy the slew of original critters that appear in this unique exploration of macabre spiritualism.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: There’s a good amount of horror films in The Criterion Collection, but there’s a definite blurring of the lines with some movies in their “Scary Movies” section. A handful of these films have been long since OOP (Flesh For Frankenstein, Blood for Dracula, Peeping Tom), while other titles such as Samuel Fuller’s White Dog, which deals with horrific material, aren’t quite horror movies. Viy is a particular case because it will satisfy those in the mood for a horror movie as well as a foreign/arthouse film. I consistently take issue with those who treat home video distributors as if they’re genres, but Viy straddles that fine line of being arthouse enough to qualify for a spine number and creepy enough to be marketable. Although Jaromil Jireš’ is Czech I feel like Viy would be a good companion piece to his spooky coming of age tale Valerie and her Week of Wonders. Viy is barely visible on home video (available on VOD or Youtube) so, therefore, distribution rights can’t be that difficult to attain.