Unlike Mario Bava, who basically used the hook in Viy of a vengeful witch wreaking havoc on humans in his classic gothic work Black Sunday / La Maschera del demonio (1960), Nikolai Gogol's tale was given a more faithful adaptation in this Russian production, with the filmmakers pretty much sticking to the characters and plotting of the original story, albeit with very mixed results.
The story itself is a perfect little shocker: three cocky seminarians get lost, are boarded in a farmhouse, and after a witch sort of seduces the more belligerent of the trio, he nearly beats her to death and flees back to the seminary, only to be selected by name to perform prayer readings for the now-dead witch after she lies in a dank church. All he has to do is last three nights in the locked building, and he'll be rewarded with 1000 ducats by the father, who wants his daughter cleansed of the rumored demonic influences, and free to ascend to Heaven.
Forbidden to leave the village and see the whole thing through, each night erodes the youth's confidence, and he begins to imbibe a bit more in local firewater, hoping booze and singing will shore up his strength to that of his fellow Cossacks. Only a circle of chalk protects him from the witch, and the tension builds as to whether he'll last through the third night, and emerge victorious, and alive.
The witch's assaults are very eerie, with actress Natalya Varley performing clever mime to simulate a hands-on search as she feels for a flaw within the invisible holy shield the chalk creates, and the church set is a masterful creation of rotting religious shell whose painted icons are flaking, or fading from the grime and dampness that besieges its rustic design.
After a weirdly comedic streak during the film's slow first half, Leonid Kuravlev eventually settles into his character, giving Khoma the right balance of false bravado that's eroded each night by traumatic encounters with Satanic evil, and the supporting cast offer a chilling level of unease, never confirming our suspicions as to their complicity in the witch's evil doings.
Basically a folk tale at heart, this adaptation by Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov follows the main story beats, but it's completely schizophrenic in balancing satire, low humour, and horror. Setting aside some serious continuity flaws the opening shots of the sprawling countryside are badly offset by interior scenes using poor background canvases, and the lighting between nighttime and interior shots is completely inconsistent the injections of humour are too broad, making the tone of specific scenes very confusing.
A case in point is the aerial ride Khoma is forced to perform, as the witch rides piggyback and has him fly above the village and countryside. More fantastical than fearsome (using very weak rear projection effects), Kuravlev plays Khoma like a bumbling stooge, and the sequence ends with him violently beating the witch after their landing. Khoma's return to the seminary and his ride with the Cossacks back to the witch's village is played without any subtext, and Kuravlev doesn't bother to infer any latent guilt or fear from his encounter with demonic presence. The journey is also interrupted by a drinking sequence that has Khoma hallucinating multiples of a fellow traveler before collapsing from too much drink (or that's what we're supposed to fill in, as the scene transitions for the film's first third are very choppy, making one suspect the first two acts were edited down to offset bad pacing; it takes almost 40 mins. before Khoma enters the old church, after which the drama finally starts to kick into gear).
Karen Khachaturyan's score is equally uneven, although he may have been following the filmmakers' weird blend of comedy and horror. One does get a sense Khachaturyan sought a middle ground, as whole cues infer Khoma's bumbling personality, yet his use of avant garde concepts, mostly performed by chamber strings, suits the story's horror elements they're just insufficiently edgy.
For both Khoma's initial flight away from the dying witch and his later efforts to flee the village before the third night Khachaturyan repeats the same shrill string motifs, but both restatements overtly infer the character's clumsy persona, and not the terror that's pushing him to literally run for his life and that sense of terror is what's needed illustrate the desperation cursing through his veins.
Lacking fancy optical effects, the filmmakers make use of some intriguing trick photography and props for Khoma's efforts to keep the witch outside of his invisible cocoon, and weird makeup and costumes are used for the grayed, mutant-like demons who appear on the third night. (While not particularly chilling maybe goofy is a better description one gets a sense of what the filmmakers were conceptualizing, and how the elaborately choreographed assault would work using current CGI technology.)
It's a uneven adaptation of a genre classic, and while more of a wonky B-movie, Viy is worth hunting down for a peek, and to compare elements treated very differently in Mario Bava's Black Sunday, and more interestingly in Lamberto Bava's 1989 stylistic and genre hybrid.
Viy was released by Rusico/Image in 2001 as Region 1 DVD by Image. The transfer is quite clean, and as with many of the former's titles, the sound mix has been upgraded into Dolby 5.1, which offers some directional sound effects (barking dogs, birds, and cats), but the music and dialogue are in pseudo-stereo, with the latter affected by some obvious fake stereo processing.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan