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VIY ***

Directed by Konstantin Ershov & Georgiy Kropachyov.

Starring Leonid Kuravlyov, Natalya Varley, Aleksey Glazyrin, Nikolay Kutuzov.

Horror/Fantasy, Soviet Union, 77 mins, cert 12.

 

Released in the UK on Limited Edition Blu-ray by Eureka Entertainment on 15th March 2021.

 

Soviet Russian gothic folk horror may not be a genre that often gets celebrated by the mainstream (or anybody else, most probably) but if there are gems to be found in the vaults of world cinema genre titles you can guarantee that Eureka Entertainment will exhume them and give them a worthy release.

 

VIY, based a short story by Nikolai Gogol, was originally released in 1967 and is considered to be a very influential film on several western filmmakers – just check out that frenetic camera work and imagine it in a certain cabin in the Tennessee woods – as well as taking its influences from the likes of Mario Bava, especially his interpretation of Russian folktale THE WURDALAK in BLACK SABBATH. Indeed, much of the technical work in VIY is down to artistic director Aleksandr Ptushko whose gothic set designs and innovative stop-motion effects in the final part of the movie are exactly the kind of thing that elevates a goofy occult horror into a cult classic.

 

But before we get to the frankly bonkers finale VIY tells the story of a young monk named Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov) who, after getting lost and having a bizarre encounter with a with an elderly witch who turns into a beautiful young woman when Khoma savagely beats her, is instructed by his superiors that he must spend three nights performing a religious ritual next to the dead body of a young woman laying in her coffin. See if you can guess who that young woman is...

 

Anyway, for the next three nights Khoma comes face to face with Pannochka the witch (Natalya Varley ) who rises from her coffin each night to try and penetrate Khoma’s protective circle, and much hilarity ensues as she summons all manner of demons and monsters to try and... well, it’s never made clear what she is trying to do but you can guarantee that it is something quite terrible.

 

For the most part VIY doesn’t really do much as the first set piece with Khoma meeting the old crone is over and done with in the first 15 minutes and the really fun stuff doesn’t begin until about the 45-minute mark so there is a baggy middle section where Khoma is basically bullied and ridiculed by his superiors and the village elders. It isn’t totally tedious thanks to Leonid Kuravlyov giving a quirky Robin Askwith-esque performance full of comedy facial expressions and exaggerated movements but it does feel remarkably padded for a film with such a short running time.

 

But once we get to the meat of the story then VIY hits its stride as Pannochka attacks and mocks Khoma whilst flying around the church in her coffin, the cameras never staying still as they revolve and fly around the room to really throw you into the action and give the film a sense of the manic and strange, just like in that cabin in the woods funnily enough. Also, the way that Pannochka gets in and out of her coffin is rather creepy in a J-Horror-esque way that cuts through the comedy and adds a bit of a spooky edge.

 

The only drawback to all this madness is that the final demon that enters the church to attack Khoma is a bit disappointing, looking like a soil-damaged SESAME STREET character that didn’t pass the audition to appear on the show. Given that the scene that precedes it shows various demons, goblins and monsters appearing from the walls via some clever camera trickery in probably the best scene of the movie, it just feels a bit anticlimactic like the filmmakers didn’t know how to end it. Nevertheless, the journey getting there is one hell of a trip.

 

Released as a limited edition two-disc set, VIY comes backed with an audio commentary by film historian and eastern European cinema expert Michael Brooke, a video essay on Russian novelist and VIY author Nikolai Gogol, clips from three early Russian silent films and an archival documentary about VIY, but on the second disc there is another adaptation of the story from 1990 by director Djordje Kadijevic. Titled SVETO MESTO (A HOLY PLACE) the film is 90-minutes long and puts a more dramatic spin on the story, featuring all manner of graphic violence and twisted perversity. Not as much fun as VIY but it certainly shows the versatility of the material.

 

Overall, VIY is a bizarre but entertaining film that feels like it is full of horror scenes and set pieces you’ve seen in several western movies but seeing as this was made in 1967 then it shows you where a lot of the ideas originally came from. It is certainly not something you see every day but then again, thanks to Eureka Entertainment now you can.

 

Chris Ward.

 

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