Let’s talk about Russian supernatural horror. Eureka continue their Masters of Cinema line with the first ever Blu-ray release of Viy, a film based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol. Brought to us by directors Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov, Viy tells the story of Seminary student Khoma (played by Leonid Kuravlyov) who is tasked to spend three nights praying over the corpse of a young woman (Pannochka, played by Natalya Varley) to absolve her soul of sin.
The problem is that the woman is actually a witch who has no intention of laying peacefully in her coffin like a good cadaver, and is instead out to get Khoma by any means necessary. Each night he goes to the church to pray, and each night she attempts to penetrate the defences of his faith to do… well, whatever her intentions, they can’t be good. And that’s it, that’s pretty much the entirety of the plot of Viy. It’s a tale of witchcraft, demons, religion and vodka. Lots of vodka. And quite a lot of singing.
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It’s a film that isn’t kind to its protagonist. Khoma is a slacker, a drunk, a liar and just a bit of a coward. But then this film was made when Russia was still part of the USSR and the state wasn’t a massive fan of organised religion. Contempt for the church bleeds through in every scene dealing with Khoma and the seminary he calls home. That said, hats off to Leonid and his performance. Khoma could easily have been a caricature, a one-note buffoon, but he still manages to be both likeable and sympathetic despite all his flaws. Natalya Varley is great fun to watch as Pannochka. Beautiful, alluring and terrifying all at once, she steals ever scene she’s in. My personal favourite is at the end of the first night where she’s forced to retreat to her coffin, literally vibrating with rage that she couldn’t exact her vengeance on Khoma, shaking her finger at him like a naughty child every step of the way.
For those who pick up the limited physical release there’s a second disc that features a film called Sveto Mesto aka A Holy Place, which is another adaptation of the same folk story. Viy was made in Russia in 1967 while this was made in Serbia in 1990. This version of the story features plenty more violence and eroticism and the themes of the film are somehow even darker as it changes the relationship between the grieving father and the dead girl. It even includes a lovely scene of the witch straddling our erstwhile hero (known as Toma in this version) while she proceeds to stomp his, ahem, plums into a fine jam.
There are plenty of special features to keep fans engaged as well. There’s an audio commentary with film historian and eastern European cinema expert Michael Brooke which is genuinely interesting to listen to, even if he does have a habit of speaking a bit quickly! He adds a lot of context to real wold events that shaped the film. There’s three snippets from early Russian silent film – The Portrait, The Queen of Spades, and Satan Exultant, all from between 1915-1917. There’s an interview with the director of A Holy Place, Djordje Kadijevic, as well as a documentary about Viy and a new video essay looking at author Nikolai Gogol.
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All in all, Viy is is a great jumping off point into the world of Russian and Eastern European cinema, with plenty of special features to add context for newcomers and even an English dub of the film for those who don’t want to read subtitles. It also stands on its own as a genuinely entertaining film. It starts slow, but stick with it and the payoff is well worth it. Sveto Mesto is a decent film as well, but of the two I preferred Viy’s interepretation of the source. Is Viy worth your money? Definitely.
Viy is out on Blu-ray on 15th March from Eureka Entertainment.