Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Viy (1967): or, Attack of the Surfin' Dead

One of the great things about being the Vicar--apart from the standing invitation to the Duke's bacchanalian soirées and the opportunities to hobnob with other religious and secular heads of state--is that it gives one the chance to explore the type of cinema that never even appears on the radar of most of the movie-going populace. Superhuman Brazilian Undertakers, Rapey Space-Worms, Bus Rides to Olympus, Incontinent Cannibal Farmboys--once you hang out the "Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies Wanted" shingle, there's really no telling what's going to fall into your lap.

But sometimes what lands with a plop on the ecclesiastical robes is something else again, a work of art unfairly consigned to the Phantom Zone of cinematic history through no fault of its own, and ripe for rediscovery by both cineastes and fans of the Filmic Insane. Such a case is Viy (aka Spirit of Evil), a Russian horror flick from 1967 that combines striking, fairy-tale visuals with scenes of true cinematic weirdness to achieve a similar level of cultural high art occupied by Masaki Kobayashi's Criterion-approved Kwaidan. Based on a short story by literary giant Nikolai Gogol (purportedly the same that provided the source material for Bava's justly-revered Black Sunday), Viy takes a page from Russian folklore and transmutes it into an arresting, effective visual experience.

Part of the film's obscure status might well be explained by, of all things, in the multi-lingual YOU-NO-COPY-ME warning screen at the beginning of the DVD. Not only did the text warn sternly against making off-site backups of the flick for...ahem...archival security purposes, but also added the stipulation that "This DVD is NOT for sale or rent in ANY of the former territories of the USSR!" Now I'm not a copyright lawyer, but I admit I was thinking, "Wait a minute, can they DO that?" As a child of the Cold War era, the proscription made me look over my shoulder, wondering if perhaps the KGB were still around and monitoring my viewing habits, looking for dirty capitalistic weaknesses.

Struggling to remember all the Commie-fighting skills I learned from Patrick Swayze and Red Dawn, I pissed in my radiator and pressed bravely forward. U-S-A! U-S-A!

"We must BREAK you."

We open at a monastery in Kiev in what are apparently medieval times, though in rural Russia I suppose you can never be sure. A group of raucous seminarians are cavorting in front of the cathedral, short-robing one another and forcing a goat to read from the Bible--in hopes of saving its soul, no doubt. A severe-looking priest with a disapproving neck-beard admonishes the would-be men of God not to get into too much mischief during the break between semesters, since during the last break "some demons in the form of seminarians" had got into all sorts of trouble with wench-grabbing and cattle-stealing, bringing shame on the monastery. Like they do.

While he speaks, a few of the more saucy monklings milk the goat and roll their eyes Bill Murrayvich-style. (In fact, at this point I was thinking we were setting up for Animal House: Kiev Monastic Version, a nonexistent movie I desperately want to see.) Duly chastised, the seminarians studiously depart for Summer Break--and immediately run wild, groping wenches and filching live geese from the surrounding village on their way out of town! I've got the potatoes and the 12-pound honker! Let's PARTAY!

"Don't goose me, bro!"

After the initial School's-Out euphoria dies down, we focus in on three friends travelling together down that dusty Russian road. The obvious leader is Khoma Brut, a mustachioed hunk with a mischievous gleam in his eye and a fondness for loud obnoxious jokes--again, Bill Murray in the inevitable American remake. As night falls the friends realize they're hopelessly lost--luckily they happen upon a little farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, tenanted by a gnarled-fingered, beak-nosed, hunchbacked crone who looks like Baba Yaga's uglier sister. The could-not-possibly-NOT-be-a-witch agrees to take the students in for the night, but stipulates that one of them must sleep inside her hut, one in a closet, and Khoma in the barn with the sheep. Tired and not nearly as suspicious as they should be, the boys agree and bed down for the night.

If this sounds like the set-up to a cautionary folktale, it's not for nothing. Later that night Khoma awakens to find the old crone leering over him, a strange twinkle in her eyes. Thinking she means to seduce him, he turns to run--only to find the old woman standing there behind him! Stunned by the old lady's quickness and agility, Khoma stands still as the old woman climbs him like a Chekovian cherry tree and straddles his shoulders! Now under her power, the hapless seminarian is whipped and ridden like a stallion by the cackling, quick-footed witch.

"Gimme some sugar, baby."

In the first of the movie's excellent "otherworldly" sequences, Khoma gallops over an increasingly dream-like terrain, his feet barely touching the ground while the earth spins crazily below him (this effect, accomplished by a flying harness and a circular, rotating set, is very strange and visually arresting). Remembering his training at last, Khoma starts reciting prayers that eventually return him to terra firma, where he gives the old woman a VICIOUS WITCHSLAP and beats her senseless with a nearby log. Once unconscious, the crone suddenly transforms into a beautiful young girl, her peasant's rags replaced by sumptuous aristocratic garments. Not terribly interested in solving THAT little mystery, Khoma hot-foots it back to the monastery.

He's not there long before the Rector ("Rector? I nearly KILLED her!") calls him in to inform him that the daughter of a nearby landowner was savagely beaten last night, and on her deathbed has requested Khoma by name to read prayers for her. He tries to refuse, but bribes of butter, flour, and vodka from the girl's dad ensure that the Rector will deny his request for recusal. A crowd of burly Kossacks take possession of the young man and load him in a wagon for the long trip out to the farm.

BTW, these Kossacks RULE. Big curled moustaches, hairy cylindrical hats, flushed wrinkled faces and jocular small talk that always seems to be barely covering a sincere threat of physical violence--they're like the Hell's Angels of medieval Russia, only awesomer than that. Luckily the good-natured Khoma is able to endear himself to his crusty Comrades by getting incredibly drunk with them at their overnight stop and entertaining them with his preaching and staggering about. (In another weird but well-done scene, Khoma sees three giant copies of one of the Kossacks emerge from three separate rooms--a simple matte effect, but in the context of his drunkenness, it works.)

Beautiful Plumage

Either extremely hungover or else still drunk, Khoma and the Kossacks arrive at the landowner's estate only to find that the Big Guy's daughter has already passed away. (A skeletal tree outside bears a huge herons' nest in which three birds sit motionless in silhouette, cementing the importance of the mystical number 3 to the story--a common motif in world folklore.) We get some awesome character work from the actor playing the deceased girl's father, grief-stricken and shattered by her death but still every inch the commanding military man. None too pleased with the drunken seminarian but respecting his daughter's last wishes, he orders the swaying Khoma to pray over her body for the next three nights, as is the custom.

After lunch and some more vodka it's time for the funeral, where of course Khoma discovers the daughter is the same girl he blugeoned to death earlier on. At the funeral service Khoma overhears some villagers gossiping about the girl's supposed pact with the devil, and how one of their number told of being ridden like a horse by her one night, exactly like Khoma's experience.

Once the solemnities are done, everything is moved on over to the chapel, where much of the rest of the movie will take place. The chapel set itself bears special mention here, as it's a beautifully creepy, dilapidated wooden church with cobwebs, medieval paintings of dour, menacing saints, and a stained glass window I'm going to call "Gothic" even though I'm not sure such is the correct term for Russian religious art. As Khoma enters for his first night of prayers, three black cats race past the coffin, a very bad sign. The creepiness continues as Khoma tries to light up some of the candles around the chapel, only to have them blown out by a wind outta nowhere--another simple but jarring effect, thanks to the effectively creepy atmosphere.

Once he starts reading the prayers things REALLY start to happen, as the corpse starts weeping blood! The quick-thinking seminarian, now in full folkloric trickster/hero mode, draws a circle of protection around his podium and continues reading the holy words while the undead witch rises and circles him, growling, the camera and set rotating once again for a weird, otherworldly effect. Finally the cock crows in the farmyard and the corpse returns to its coffin. Triumphant for now, Khoma staggers out of the church and collapses into the arms of his Kossack posse.

Luckily, the Zombie was a Mime

Completely freaked out but seeing no way clear of his situation, Khoma spends the day drinking MORE vodka with his Kossack friends and dancing his cares away most frenetically. (Seriously, to judge by this movie, the entire nation of Russia must have only two states of physical health: totally drunk, or horrendously hung-over. There is no third alternative.) When Khoma enters the chapel for his second night of prayers, pigeons fly over the coffin instead of cats (one even flies out of the pages of the Bible Khoma opens on the podium). He staggers to his spot and redraws his protective circle, which was apparently rubbed out by the daytime cleaning crew. Thus prepared, Khoma begins reciting his prayers.

It doesn't take long for things to get even CRAZIER than the night before, as right on cue the witch sits up in her coffin and then levitates the pine box and begins flying around the room! More rotating camera work disorients both Khoma and the viewer, as the cackling witch stands up in the spinning coffin and does everything she can to throw Khoma off his game, including breathing a mist into his face that turns his hair white! Gripping the podium for support, Khoma completes his prayers, the cock crows again, and the witch returns to her designated bier.

Surfin' U.S.S.R.

Did someone say "beer"? None for me, I'll have the VODKA! Khoma hits the bottle again, HARD, his carnal and holy sides warring after his second ordeal. Deciding he's had enough, Khoma explains to the girl's father that "She's been bewitched by Satan!" which is SO not what the old man wants to hear. The old man threatens Khoma with a thousand lashes if he refuses to complete his task, delivering a great Quinn-esque speech about what a good lashing can do to a body. In desperation Khoma tries to run away, but another rotating set deposits him right back at the farm, where his not-as-friendly-now Kossack buddies pick him up and carry him back to the chapel for his final night.

It's this last night that really pushes Viy into Mad Mad Mad Mad Movie territory, as the witch pulls out all the stops and hits Khoma with everything she's got. In a scene that recalls everything from Haxan to German Silent Expressionist Horrors to Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête, we get winged demons crab-walking through the stained glass window, giant clawed hands emerging from the floor and walls, a hydra constructed of horse skulls and spines, marionette skeletons, a demon cat puppet, and and even OMG ZOMBIE MIDGETS! The camera spins around Khoma on his island of sanity, showing him surrounded by everything Evil and Insane--it's actually a very creepy and disquieting scene, totally nightmarish and effective. Finally the witch shouts dramatically, "I SUMMON VIY!" And it's time for our titular titan to make his appearance.

What is Viy, you might ask? I've still got the same question--in walks a bulky, golem-like giant with stubby arms and eyelids that droop to the middle of its pinched face. The way the other creatures make room for the stomping beast tells us this guy is the Big Gun, and it's hard not to be nervous for our drunken friend. Viy commands the demons to "Raise my eyelids!" so he can cast his killing gaze on Khoma. The seminarian screams in horror and falls out of his circle, and the demons and other creatures of hell fall on him in a heap just as the cock crows for the third and final time.

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,

And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;

Because he knows, a frightful fiend

Doth close behind him tread.

(Coleridge, bitchez!)

After watching Viy, I sat there for a while, silent, pondering how a film like this could be so unknown--more than that, how a film like this even got MADE in 1967 Russia. The themes of religion and the supernatural, of the priest/prankster, drunken-philosopher hero--they don't seem like standard Communist Party Output to me, and the fact that it still seems to be under at least a nominal ban in former Soviet countries intrigues me even more. It's a wonderful fairy-tale of a movie with a lot to recommend it--inventive camera work, beautiful use of color and sets (it's easy to see how Bava might have been an influence), to say nothing of the wild, successful special effects. It seems like a movie that should be better known among horror fans.

Then again, maybe it is--I don't claim full authority, and just cuz I haven't heard of it before now doesn't mean beans. (Karswell of the excellent The Horrors of It All knew about it, obviously, which is how it ended up at the vicarage in the first place. Thanks, Daddy K!) And it's available for purchase along with a lot of other Cold-War era cinema over at, for those who are interested and don't live in the Ukraine or Kazakhstan or something. As for me, like Lee Greenwood, "I'm proud to be an American, where at least I can see Viy!"

3 Thumbs. Check it out, all ye lovers of weird world cinema. Good night, and God bless.



Karswell said...

Ahhh, the review that's been 4 months in the making! Can I have my dvd back now? Seriously, excellent review d00d, I've watched this dozens of times myself and never get tired of that gorgeous witch flying around in her coffin. Oh! I know something-- this movie is currently being remade by (bad news) Robert Englund, and is supposedly to star (good news) Christopher Lee in some role. This was all the talk about half a year ago but I have not since heard much else uttered about it:

The Vicar of VHS said...

I could see Chris as the girl's dad, or in a cameo as the Rector. But Robert Englund? Who knew he was an aficionado of Russian cinema?

And how strange that Mr. Englund was featured in the review immediately previous. I smell a communist plot.

Better Dead than Fred! ;)

Tenebrous Kate said...

WOW. I'm... kinda speechless.
I never even *heard* of this movie before reading your review. Thank goodness for the internet, introducing me to new and awesome stuff every day (an alarming percentage of which comes from the Vicarage and THOIA, in point-o-fact-o--thanks, guys!).

zilich said...

How a film like this even got made in Russia?

“Viy” based on popular XIX’th century book like ”Sleepy Hollow” for America… and Commie like to film classic tales… my advice is to watch another movies of this director… they are great and creepy

last years “Viy” was adapted three times
first “modern” version.

second “fantasy” version will be at 2009

third - Robert Englund $ Lee will be at 2009 too

Anonymous said...

This movie is still very popular in the former USSR and is frequently shown on TV (needless to say, you can buy DVD on every corner).

Special effects are a bit old, but ok.

It is true that horror movies were never a strong part of soviet cinematography. There was really nothing compared to "Viy".

There are some pretty good post-soviet ones, though. Search IMDB!

Anonymous said...

A great movie indeed!
i can also recommend an adaptation of the same story made in 1990 in Yugoslavia it's called "Sveto mesto"
(Holy place), it's mostly the same story but with a sexual twist added.
Also from the same director (Djordje Kadijevic) i highly recommend "Leptirica"
It's based on an old Serbian vampire story so it could be interesting to your followers.

MarkusWelby1 said...

you don't know how utterly fantastic it is to know of other people that are aware of this amazing little flick. It almost reminded me in some parts like something Sam Raimi might have done in his "Evil Dead" days. let down only by revealing the titular creature (rubber suit) in the end. But a great ride overall!

The Vicar of VHS said...

Hi Markus, thanks for the comment! Yes, there is a proto-Raimi vibe here. It's a wild little movie and no mistake; and I didn't even mind the rubber-suit creature. It seemed almost of a piece with the fairy-tale nature of the thing, if that makes sense. Thanks again for dropping by!

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