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Severin Films: Viy (1967) - Reviewed

Posted By themoviesleuth 770 days ago on Entertainment - Russian author Nikolai Gogol’s 1835 published world famous horror novella Viy (or The Viy) might well be the most well-known piece of Soviet fantasy folklore in literary as well as cinematic history.  In addition to directly influencing Italian gothic horror maestro Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, Viy spawned four Russian cinematic adaptations, a South Korean film and a Serbian film starting in the early 1900s lasting through the mid-2010s.  The version the Movie Sleuth will be looking at came in 1967 as Viy and is generally regarded as Russia’s very first full-blooded horror film.  Up until recently, the only way to see this largely overlooked yet celebrated European horror oddity was through non-English friendly releases which weren’t translated but nonetheless presented a gothic horror tale the likes of which hadn’t been seen before up to that time.  A story of the occult, all things demonic and witchy, Viy follows priest-in-training Khoma Brut (Leonid Kuravlyov) who on a sojourn with fellow comrades becomes lost in the forest and crosses paths with a haggard old witch who nearly kills him by flying him through the air.  Having narrowly escaped the witch’s clutches, Khoma stumbles into a small village whose locals implore that he stays in their dilapidated local church for three nights to pray for the soul of a nameless dead girl (Natalya Varley).  Khoma reluctantly agrees, only to discover to his horror the dead girl just so happens to be the same witch he just encountered.  His only protection is a meager chalk circle drawn around himself which proves to be too strong for the dead girl but not enough for others.  What follows are three intense nights of witchcraft, the undead and demonic entities including but not limited to the fiercely dreaded Viy itself, building up to a phantasmagorical freak out.Co-written and co-directed by then established auteur (dubbed the ‘Russian Walt Disney’) Aleksandr Ptushko alongside fellow directors Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov, the Mosfilm release remains a visually arresting production sporting ornate set design, elaborate makeup, colorful lighting and wild, bombastic visual effects still able to sweep viewers and seasoned horror fans off their feet.  Utilizing a variety of unique camera tricks and superimpositions, the matted blue-screen effects show their age but nonetheless manage to move the camera and objects within it’s frame about so rapidly we don’t mind the shortcomings of the matting.  One particularly striking vista involves a Hellish night for the young Khoma with otherworldly superhuman claws coming out of the walls and up from the floor as the camera rapidly encircles Khoma.  It’s a wild effect that doesn’t always look realistic but still manages to make your hair stand on end.  Composed in Academy Ratio 1.33:1, Viy was shot by two cinematographers, Viktor Pishchanlnikov and Fyodor Provorov and is largely lit in deep blues emphasizing the film’s deathly supernatural aura which only intensifies as the film progresses to a monochromatic dark blue.  Sonically the film sports a moody and at times atonal score by famed composer Aram Khachaturian’s nephew Karen which at times sounds eerily reminiscent of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.Appropriately to keep the film from scaring the Hell out of audiences, the central lead performance of the intoxicated and bumbling Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov) are largely comical with many of the character’s cartoonish facial expressions offset by the creepy (and occasionally campy) horrors which unfold.  At times I was reminded watching it of the Looney Tunes cartoon where Sylvester the Cat struggles to remain in a haunted house for the rest of the night as unknown monsters proceed to terrorize him into a nervous wreck.Though short (running a mere seventy-eight minutes) and not always the most frightening piece (the titular Viy itself spoiled on the cover art of the new Severin Films blu-ray looks kinda silly), Viy is truly a unique one-of-a-kind horror exercise and among the few cinematic adaptations faithful to the text.  Some of it is indeed dated but for the time the effects and production design were revolutionary and depicted witchcraft in a manner not seen on film up to that point.  Over the years Nikolai Gogol would become a character in his own film trilogy which saw yet another cinematic adaptation of Viyin 2018.  While the story of Viy or the works of Gogol are unlikely to go away from Russian cinemas anytime soon, the 1967 film continues to stand the test of time and remains an important chapter in Russian film history which saw the nation step into the limelight with their own spin on witchcraft and folk horror.--Andrew Kotwicki

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