Horror Movies

Genre Index







Viy, 1967. Directed by Georgi Kropachyov and Konstantin Yershov. Leonid Kuravlyov, Natalya Varley.

Synopsis: School's out for seminary student Khoma Brutus. He and fellow students stream from the school and venture into the surrounding countryside to raise some hell. Khoma and his two buddies get themselves good and lost, and have to shelter for the night at a farm owned by an old woman. Khoma gets the stable for his berth. Later that evening, the old woman comes into the stable to bewitch Khoma and rides him through the air. She's obviously a witch, and Khoma rebels at his burden, knocking her out of the sky and beating her. As he does this, she transforms into a gorgeous young woman. Khoma, freaked out by this turn of events, flees back to his seminary. When he arrives back at school, a message is waiting. The daughter of a prominent land-owner has died and requested that Khoma pray at her coffin for three nights. Understandably confused by the request--he's never even heard of the girl before--Khoma tries to shirk the duty, but is compelled by his superiors and the land-owner. The girl in the coffin, unexpectedly, is the girl Khoma beat as a witch. And when the witch stirs after midnight, rising from her coffin to take revenge on Khoma, it's all he can do to protect himself from her powers..

From Russia with Love: A couple of years ago, I wrote this paragraph as part of my review of Mario Bava's Black Sabbath:

"As was true of Bava’s first horror movie, Black Sunday, Black Sabbath mines a heretofore untapped wellspring of horror traditions: Russian literature. Black Sunday is derived from Gogol’s “The Vij;” both “A Drop of Water” and “The Wurdulak” derive from Checkov and Tolstoi, respectively. One wonders, given the effectiveness of these stories, why no one else has revisited Russian literature and folklore for material. Certainly, Baba Yaga and her magical hut would seem tailor-made for the movies. This is idle speculation, but I wonder if there is a strain of Russian cinema, unseen by Western eyes, that mines this very tradition. Bava’s early films give tantalizing hints..."

And here, thanks to the good folks at Russico, we have an answer. Viy is an arresting film, one that doesn't have the feeling of any particular horror tradition. Parts of it recall Mario Bava (and demonstrate what a fine match Bava was for the stories he adapted), parts of it resemble what you might get were you to cross Bava with Tsui Hark. And parts of it defy any comparisons I can make. The otherness of the film is what makes it interesting. Viy is first a fairy story, and the filmmakers have created an fairytale world in which to set it. Of course, some of the locations in which this film is set are bound to have a medieval strangeness to it, given the relative unfamiliarity of Russian settings to a Western audience. The film is exotic in this way. But the film is also built upon a striking artifice. This is a special-effects movie; both of its directors come to the director's chair from the special effects department. Some of the effects the film employs are striking: the scene where the witch rides her coffin like a surfboard through the air in an ever accellerating circle around our poor hero is a standout. Some of the effects are disappointing: the final appearance of the demon, Viy, screams "man in a rubber suit." Regardless, none of the effects seem to derive from Western influences.

What the film lacks is a basic ability to scare the audience. Maybe that's just my jaded, seen-a-thousand-horror-movies viewpoint, but this film seems more in the line of Grimm's fairy tales than, say, Bava's "The Wurdulak." Not that there's anything wrong with that. Fairy tales have an aesthetic of their own, even when they intersect with the horror story, and who am I to grouse about a film that's true to this tradition? In any event, the film is great fun to watch, and it even manages to end on a disquieting note.

The Roots of Russian Horror: I would be remiss if I didn't mention the extras on Russico's DVD. Among these are three fragments from Russian silent cinema, showing a dawning of horror filmmaking that is contemporary with the beginnings of horror filmmaking in Germany. These are as follows:

The Queen of Spades (fragment) (1916, directed by Yakov Protazanov)
The Portrait (fragment) (1916 )
Satan Exhultant (fragment) (1917)

Each of these is a fascinating artifact. The Queen of Spades is in the worst shape, but seems the most engaging of the three, telling the story of a gambler’s descent into madness. The Portrait provides a powerful shock of recognition as an early manifestation of the ghost that comes out of a picture (think a version of The Ring, ninety years early). There’s a reason I put tape on my full length mirrors, lest I accidentally walk into a parallel universe. Satan Exhultant seems like it would be the most interesting of these films, telling the story of how Satan invades the lives of a parson and his family. A cross, if you will, between Carl Th. Dreyer and Benjamin Christiansen. Taken as a body, these fragments suggest a world of wonder hiding in a vault somewhere in Russia. I wonder if the intervening years have been kind to horror films, or if the Communists stamped them out as bourgeois vanity. Still and all, horror films didn't entirely vanish. How else to explain the existence of Viy? And one of the other extras, a trailer for a movie called The Amphibian Man, a movie that looks for all the world like a Russian rip-off of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, hints that Viy isn't an abberation. But who knows? The Shadow, no doubt, but not I...