Written by Konstantin Ershov, Georgiy Kropachyov, Aleksandr Ptushko
Based on the story by Nikolay Gogol
Directed by Konstantin Ershov, Georgiy Kropachyov
Starring Leonid Kuravlyov
Released November 27, 1967 (Soviet Union)
RT 77 min.
Home Video Diamont (DVD)
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)
“Viy is a colossal creation of the imagination of simple folk. The tale itself is a purely popular legend. And I tell it without change, in all its simplicity, exactly as I heard it told to me.” Gogol
There’s a lighter tone to Viy (1967) than I’d expect for the first Soviet-era horror film released in the USSR. Although it begins with a lot of cobwebs behind its opening titles, the movie favors humor over suspense in moving toward its terrifying conclusion. In fact, while there are some creepy scenes in the middle, there are none that anticipate the assault of horrific images that appears during its climax.
On vacation from the seminary, three students are lost in the dark, but find a night’s rest in a remote farmhouse where an old woman reluctantly lets them stay. She separates them, then pays special attention to young Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov) by hopping on his back and riding him like a horse. As he gallops outside, she grabs her broom and they begin flying. The old woman is a witch.
This frightens Khoma just a little and when they touch ground, he beats her. Close to death, in the old woman’s place, he sees a beautiful young woman. As might be expected, Khoma runs away. Thinking his adventure might be finished, the lovable loser learns that the woman he killed was the daughter of one of the richest men in the land. On top of that, this man now requests that Khoma comes to read her funeral prayers.
The “master” is tormented by not knowing who killed his daughter while simultaneously wondering why she called for Khoma on her death bed if they had never met. After leading the funeral procession, Khoma is locked in the chapel with her body for three nights. He tries to get out of this responsibility, but is promised a handsome sum when he is done with it. The only real choice he has is “one thousand lashes or one thousand gold pieces.”
On the first night, cats run through the chapel and Khoma tells himself that as soon as he speaks the holy words, no demon can harm him. With a clear indication that something bad is going to happen, Viy still goes for laughs with the character of Khoma. He lights candles; they blow out. He sneezes; the witch rises from her coffin. He believes she can’t penetrate a circle he draws on the ground. When the rooster crows, she lies back down, after first shaking her finger at him.
On the second night, birds fly through the chapel and Khoma repeats to himself, “A Cossack is never afraid of anything.” This time, the coffin floats around him and the circle on the ground before the lid pops off and the witch rides it like a surfboard, calling his name. He throws a boot at her as the rooster crows. She returns to her resting place, but not before casting a spell on him that turns his hair gray.
On the third night, after unsuccessfully trying to run away, Khoma fortifies himself with drink. He defiantly shouts at the witch that he won’t be scared. But that’s before she sits up and curses him. She summons “vampires and werewolves,” although the creatures that appear all look like skeletons or zombies. Then she summons Viy, which I can describe only as… a monster. It most closely resembles Mike from Disney’s Monsters, Inc.
In the frenzied climax, the creatures swirl around Khoma and attack him. The witch ultimately gets her revenge. Similar to The White Reindeer (1952, Finland) Viy is a regional folk tale. As such, there’s a moral to the story. His friends toast Khoma after he’s gone and say, “He wouldn’t be dead if he hadn’t been afraid.” So there’s the lesson: don’t be scared. The movie probably won’t scare you, but you can empathize with its main character and appreciate that it scares him.
Today’s passport stamp:Part of the Countdown to Halloween. Tomorrow… Turkey!