Wednesday, 27 October 2021

A Holy Place


A Holy Place
aka Sveto Mesto

Yugoslavia 1990
Directed by Djordje Kadijevic
Eureka Masters Of Cinema
Blu Ray Zone B
As part of Eureka’s first edition,
two disc Blu Ray version
presentation of VIY

Warning: Some major spoilers in this one if you don’t know Viy.

Sveto Mesto (aka A Holy Place), is a 1990 Yugoslavian TV take on Nikolay Gogol’s famous novella Viy (which I confess I’ve never read, as yet). This Blu Ray is a special and, it turns out, very limited pressing additional disc attached to last year’s Eureka Masters Of Cinema presentation of Konstantin Ershov & Georgiy Kropachyov’s version of Viy (which I reviewed here). This has, alas, already sold out and their follow up, single disc edition does not include Sveto Mesto on it.

I won’t go on to describe the whole story of it here, other than where the director deviates form the content of the previous film, but just quickly... a student from the local monastery, lost with two friends, spends the night at a hut with an old witch who assaults him and rides him like a broom (although the special effects are not nearly as ‘special’ here in this more ‘implied’ version of that scene). In this version, after nearly making love to him when she turns into a young woman, the witch's assault on him provokes violence and he appears to kill her. The next day he is ordered to the home of a rich benefactor of the church to spend three nights vigil, alone in his private church, reading from the bible over the body of his recently deceased daughter, the same dead witch in her younger incarnation (played by Branka Pujic). Each night, the witch awakens and tries to get to young Toma (played by Dragan Jovanovic, who married her in real life, two years after the release of this movie), who protects himself with a hastily scribbled circle in the dirt.

Like the 1967 movie... and presumably Gogol’s story... the majority of the running time is split into a structure of three ‘vigils’, with a significant amount of downtime in between to heighten the suspense... which is a smart structure if you’re doing a horror/supernaturally themed movie. However, this version embellishes these three pre-vigil downtime moments with Toma (who is so terrified by his experiences the second night that his hair turns grey, using a not so impressive looking wig, I suspect), with other people's accounts of the sexually, non-consensually dominating witch (involving some quite aggressive and damaging trampling, which she also inflicts on Toma on the third night) when she was truly alive. These flashback sequences are not quite sepia as they still employ a full colour palette but they are definitely filtered and lit so as to be as near as dammit to a sepia tint, with only the stronger colours like the red of the witch’s costume dominating the hues at times.

The three nightly vigils themselves are much shorter and far less fantastical encounters than in the earlier version of Viy, mostly being restricted to gaining entrance to the circle and, in the last one when the witch coaxes Toma out with his own curiosity, the threat is still only herself as she dominates and then seduces Toma (which is what leads to his quick death when he’s discovered by the father, snuggled up to her corpse on the third ‘morning after’). The second vigil sequence, brief though it is, is probably the most terrifying and makes good use of one of the few minimal but effectively eerie soundtrack cues in the picture.

Once again, this version is filmed in a 4:3 aspect ratio, as was required for television sets of the time but the director and cinematographer compose some nice, clean shots with people pitched towards the centre of the screen for most of it or, sometimes, filling the screen with people. It’s nicely enough shot but, I have to say, although I appreciate the crisp, clear transfer of the film... the print is absolutely awful. It’s like looking through a snowstorm for a lot of the time and there is a lot of wear and tear. Again, I don’t think this is a fault of the transfer and I think Eureka did their best with it... but I think that would explain why Severin in the US didn’t include this version on their release of Viy from the year prior to this release and, also, why it looks like it’s not being included with the presentation of Viy in their up and coming All The Haunts Be Ours folk horror Blu Ray collection. So I’m really pleased I picked this one up when I did.

There are three things I noted of special interest when I watched this... or at least three curiosities.

Firstly, the girl’s dead mother seems to remove herself from a portrait (which has her figure painted out as grey when she appears standing near it) to frighten the father. Not too much is made of this but the implication taken from this and some other accounts in those flashback sequences tend to point to the idea that the whole family are witches.

Secondly, following a maid in the house being scratched by a cat in a flashback, who is obviously a moggy incarnation of the young witch, her naked human form in a bathtub goes on to seduce the maid and later introduce her to off camera sapphic delights. I was surprised though that the nudity and sexual implication only warranted a 12 rating in the UK (not complaining and I’d like to say that times have changed but, truthfully, I suspect times are just glaringly inconsistent).

Thirdly, there’s a little continuation of the film after the death of Toma which is completely different to the end of the 1967 version. His two friends go to collect the dead body but, on their way back with the corpse to the church, are obliged to spend time at the witch’s hut overnight. She then separates them out and starts aggressively attempting to ride one of them again, thus starting the cycle anew.

And that’s me done with Sveto Mesto (aka A Holy Place) I think. I wouldn’t consider this essential viewing unless you really like Viy (and why wouldn’t you), in which case it might be worth trying to see this one at some point. Asides from the state of the print, which is not their fault, Eureka have done a fantastic job and this extra disc also comes with a half hour interview with the director. I’m glad I moved quickly on this one because it’s nice to see a different take on the same source material, for sure.

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