Viy, or Spirit of Evil

Year: 1967. Directed by Georgy Kropachyov and Konstantin Yershov. Based on a story by Nikolai Gogol. Stars Alexei Glazyrin, Leonid Kuravlyov, Natalya Varley, and Vadim Zakharchenko.
DVD release: Ruscico (distribution by Image Entertainment)

Review by James Newman

The Russian Cinema Council, under the moniker of "Ruscico," is now in the process of releasing throughout the world several Russian films on DVD, primarily from the horror, science-fiction, and fantasy genres. In the past, Russian video releases have largely been confined to established classics and contemporary art house films. But a wealth of Russian cinema still awaits discovery in the West. Russian filmmakers didn't just make artistic films. They also created films in many established genres, and many of those films deserve to find broader audiences.

Previous releases by Ruscico include The Amphibian Man, which prefigured by well over a decade the American Splash, and Dr. Howell's Brain, which resembles the '60s schlock sci-fi favorite The Brain That Wouldn't Die. In addition, Ruscico has recently released a movie titled Viy. Based on a story by Nikolai Gogol's, this is a major release that horror fans should be sure to check out for its stylistic flourishes and its audacious climactic scene.

Viy tells the story of a mischievous theology student named Thomas Brutus who is called to read scripture beside the coffin of a recently deceased young woman. For three consecutive evenings, her father locks Thomas inside the rural church/barn where his daughter's coffin has been placed. Promptly at midnight, she then rises from the coffin -- for she was a witch -- and a savage battle takes place between the forces of good and evil. With chalk, Thomas marks off a circle around himself, and this keeps the evil forces from destroying him. But this doesn't stop the witch from trying her best to overpower him. Ultimately she calls forth the denizens of hell to assist her.

Viy comes from a folk tale tradition that is largely foreign to American audiences. The closest American counterpart might be Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," which contains some of the same mix of horror and folk humor as Viy. For example, as a group of theology students leave their seminary on vacation, they mob a market stand and run off with all the goods. This scene is played as broad comedy, as is a following scene in which our hero rides on the back of an elderly witch as she brandishes a broom and sends them soaring through the sky. But gradually the comedic elements start to wear away as a sense of hopelessness gradually grows concerning the fate of Thomas.

Most Russian movies based on folk tales or fairy tales tend to be theatrical, but in Viy, directors Georgy Kropachyov and Konstantin Yershov use the camera is startling ways that even manage to foretell the hyper-kinetic camerawork of Hong Kong cinema--as when the witch's coffin rises and flies through the air, spiraling around Thomas as he struggles to continue reading scripture. A typical Russian movie based on a folk tale (or on fantasy)--such as Sword and the Dragon (1956)--was filmed as if it were a drama on a stage. But here the camera is placed in the middle of the action. This approach is used throughout most of Viy--as when an elderly witch meets the theology student and offers to allow him to spend the night in her cottage. At midnight, she walks toward him ominously as the camera tracks in front of her, looking up at her face as she looms above. Sometimes the staging wavers toward the theatrical. Disappointingly, the climactic scene, where the demon "Viy" finally appears, is one of these scenes. Viy lumbers forward (a man in a rubbery suit) while the camera takes in the entire scene. In this sequence, the creature Viy seems insignificant and not particularly powerful. Thankfully, the appearance of the lesser demons is effectively realized with a plague of scuttling monstrosities that emerge from cracks in a wall. They surge over a balcony and walk like spiders down a wall. (English translations of the Russian language dialogue says the witch has called forth werewolves and vampires, but these creatures look nothing like Western conceptions of these beasts.)

Surprisingly, much of the movie takes place in bright light. The inside of the church/barn where the witch's coffin lies is exceptionally well lit. If this were an American movie, these scenes would have used large volumes of dark space, but in Viy we clearly see what happens. Nothing is half hidden in shadow.

The movie is somewhat marred by a poor sense of time. Each night, when the witch rises from her coffin and confronts Thomas, time flies by very quickly. Suddenly it's dawn and the rooster crows. The movie would've definitely been more effective with a more discernible sense of the passing of time between midnight and dawn. However, this is quibbling. Viy is a remarkable movie. It doesn't adhere to Western formulas--this ain't Hammer or Universal horror--and that makes it unpredictable and unsettling.

Ruscico's DVD is loaded with extras. You'll find trailers, production stills, cast and crew biographies and filmographies, and extensive excerpts (over 10 minutes each!) from three silent era Russian horror films--Satan Exultant (1917), The Queen of Spades (1916), and The Portrait (1916). The most important extra for fans of Viy is a documentary on author Nikolai Gogol. This documentary provides valuable background on the life of Gogol and his literary achievements. In addition, this disc comes with one of the most extensive sets of optional subtitles that we've ever encountered, including Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Portugese, Spanish, and Swedish. The audio is available in Russian, English, and French. Overall, this is an superb DVD package. Be sure to keep your eyes open for additional Ruscico titles.

Viy, or Spirit of Evil is available on DVD from Ruscico (distribution by Image Entertainment). Suggested retail price: $29.99.