AKA Viy, Spirit of Evil; Vij
DIRECTED BY: Georgi Kropachyov & Konstantin Yershov
FEATURING: Leonid Kuravlyov, Natalya Varley
PLOT: In medieval Ukraine, a seminarian must spend three nights praying over the
corpse of a witch.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This faithful adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s 1835 short story is a classic of world horror, deserving a place alongside the quintessential Universal fright films. Like the works of Gogol’s contemporary, Edgar Allen Poe, Viy may have been regarded as a “weird” tale on its original publication, but today it seems a relatively straightforward ghost story, demonstrating how what was once weird may be subsumed into the mainstream over time. It’s still unconditionally recommended, especially for fans of sublime supernatural horror storytelling that relies on atmosphere and foreboding rather than blood and guts.
COMMENTS: Viy is an unusual and exotic experience for Western viewers, for whom witches are not the prototypical supernatural villain, but most will quickly feel comfortable inside the film’s recognizable folk tale structure. The story is impeccably told; Kuravlyov’s seminarian, who begins with a mischievous frat-boy brashness but ends up bullied and harried by both Cossacks and witches, is an eminently fallible but very likable comic-turned-tragic hero. Varley’s nameless and mostly mute witch is eerily pretty, and manages to create a tremendous sense of menace simply by grasping blindly at the seminarian while he’s hidden from her view inside the holy circle he has drawn on the chapel floor with chalk. The special effects aren’t always seamless (although you may wonder how some were achieved), but they are always artful and elegant, and their artificiality is an asset, creating a universe that’s far more otherworldly than it otherwise might be. (Think of the difference between Willis O’Brien’s dreamlike and iconic stop-motion animated King Kong and Peter Jackson’s photorealistic but forgettable ape). The gibbering gray demons that threaten to swarm over the hero in the exhilarating climax are as unforgettable an assortment of ogres as you are likely to see on film.
Mario Bava’s classic Black Sunday [La Maschera del Demonio]  was also inspired by Viy, but that story veers so far from Gogol’s tale it can hardly be considered an adaptation. Foolishly, a Russian remake of Viy is currently in the works. The original was done perfectly, and CGI graphics cannot improve upon the stylish charm of the 1967 production. The Russico DVD contains abundant extras, including lengthy excerpts from three silent Russian horror films: Queen of Spades, Satan Exultant, and The Portrait.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“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… Karen Khachaturyan’s score is equally uneven, although he may have been following the filmmakers’ weird blend of comedy and horror.”–KQEK.com
(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Natalia.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)