Russia is not broadly known for its horror cinema, and in the 60s, even less so. However, this era did produce one bona fide horror classic, VIY, an adaptation of a short story by Nikolai Gogol. An undeniably strange film, VIY is an absurdist horror that barely even tries to be scary, however what it lacks in scares it makes up for in atmosphere and general weirdness.
In that respect, this is a breath of fresh air for anyone going in with preconceptions of Russian cinema purely consisting of long, boring films. VIY clocks in at just over 70 minutes and with this folk horror story that’s a lot of fun: A priest has a bizarre encounter with a witch, and is subsequently instructed to stand vigil over her body for three nights, which is where the horror begins…
If the story sounds vaguely familiar to horror fans, it’s because this was previously adapted by Mario Bava as Black Sunday, a much more overtly scary and stylised film. This is a lot more faithful, and as such a lot less accessible, to average cinemagoers but should appeal to fans of the original tale. The tiniest details are replicated from the book, such as a cat crossing the priest’s path on his way into the crypt, or a tear rolling down the corpse’s cheek, all of which add to the feeling of unease that permeates the film.
As a horror it’s a little tame – and too far removed from reality to deliver any real scares. As a piece of objet d’art though, it’s beautiful. In a similar manner to Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan, there’s an eerie feel to it but the folksie nature of the story prevents it from diving deeper. While credited as having two directors, it’s widely accepted that the real creative force behind the film was Aleksandr Ptushko, the visionary Russian equivalent of Ray Harryhausen, who had been making films since the 1920s. The cinematography is sparse but incredibly striking. There are moments of beauty that are used sparingly and to devastating effect. It’s scattered with beautiful landscape shots, and the scene where the priest lights as many candles as he can for protection looks stunning, as does each night-time sequence where he stays in the crypt.
The finale (truthfully the only genuinely terrifying sequence in the film) is an impressive, unnerving mixture of stop motion, back projection and make-up effects, as assorted demons surround the priest in the crypt, and summon the gigantic demon, VIY. The costumes might look a little clunky, but there’s no denying the creepiness of his appearance, and his one ominous line “I see him” makes for a chilling moment. Aside from this scene, most of the eeriness comes from the way the seemingly innocent villagers are complicit in the unnatural goings on. When the priest tries to escape he is waylaid at every opportunity; it’s almost played for laughs but there is a potent and sinister undercurrent nonetheless.
VIY somewhat feels like an extended segment of a portmanteau horror rather than a completely satisfying film in its own right. Nonetheless it’s an interesting insight into Russian cinema in the 1960s. While the US was producing genuinely frightening classics like Rosemary’s Baby, The Haunting and Night Of The Living Dead, Russia’s sole entry to the genre at this time is a folk tale, that’s more comedic than scary, and only ventures into overt horror territory right at the end.
A HOLY PLACE (1990, dir. Djordje Kadijevic) This is just as creepy as the main event, even if it’s essentially a different take on the same story. While VIY is superstitious and mythical, this version is has a more macabrely sexual slant. It’s beautifully shot and makes this limited edition an interesting double feature.
Audio commentary with film historian Michael Brooke; Video essay on Nikolai Gogol; Archival documentary on Gogol; Three Russian silent film fragments; Original 1967 Trailer; PLUS: Collector’s Booklet featuring an essay on Aleksandr Ptushko by Tim Lucas, and an essay by Serbian writer Dejan Ognjanovic