Monday, 25 October 2021






A Viy In
A Manger

USSR 1967
Directed by Konstantin Ershov
& Georgiy Kropachyov
Mosfilm/Eureka Masters Of Cinema
Blu Ray Zone B

Viy is the second of many filmed versions of Nikolay Gogol’s famous novella, although I still can’t work out why it’s known as the first Russian horror movie because, like I said, it’s the second adaptation of the story and the first one, a 1909 silent version now lost to us, would surely be the first? Maybe I’m missing something here. It’s a film I’ve wanted to see for a while because I know the original story and possibly the silent version were very influential to a few directors who came to pre-eminence in the genre, among them Mario Bava (who certainly listed it as an inspiration for his ‘official’ debut feature Black Sunday).

As far as I know this is the first time it’s been made available in this country... or at the very least the first time it’s been made available in a pristine Blu Ray edition with a beautiful print and a crisp transfer from the Eureka Masters Of Cinema label. This version is directed by Konstantin Ershov & Georgiy Kropachyov but the real artistic force behind the movie is actually Aleksandr Ptushko, who is pretty much the Russian forerunner of people such as Willis O’ Brien, George Pal and Ray Harryhausen (for a crash course in the cinema of Ptushko, see the essay in the booklet in this edition, by the great Tim Lucas). The film is shot in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio and this limited edition version of the set also includes a second Blu Ray with a 1990 Yugoslavian remake of it called The Holy Place... so I was quick to pick this up because you just know the label will probably issue a reprint version without that second disc when this one sells out (yeah, it turns out that since writing this review, they already did that).

The film is initially quite charming and a little slow paced in the way of a lot of Russian films but, that just adds to the charm. It’s also is a very strange blend of the traditional shot of Russian pessimism with a kind of upbeat, broadly comic counterpoint to the tone, which is almost an unsettling thing itself in terms of the little epilogue to the main action in the film’s final scene.

The film starts with main protagonist Khoma, played by Leonid Kuravlyov... a student from the local monastery who gets lost in the wilderness with two friends one night before they find themselves given impromptu and seperate bedding in the stable of an elderly lady. As Khoma tries to sleep, the old lady suddenly comes and exerts a supernatural force on him, with a beautiful sequence where the young philosophy student priest is manipulated, by amazing special effects trickery, to tilt his body to the ground so she can climb on his back and ride him. This witch then uses him as a  broomstick as she flies around a bit before landing. While Khoma is trying to kill her by beating her with a stick, she turns into an alluring young woman played by Natalya Varley and he runs back to the monastary.

The next morning, he is requested by a mysterious man to hold a lone prayer vigil over the corpse of his recently deceased daughter, as is her last request, citing Khoma by name. When he is finally taken there he sees the dead girl is the woman the old witch turned into, having been killed by being beaten. He stands vigil for three nights and each night, the daughter rises from her coffin and tries to attack him while Khoma tries to keep her at bay in the chalk circle of protection he draws each night. Whether he is succesful in warding off the unholy witch is something I won’t go into here but, I will say that the slow and comedic nature of the scenes set outside of the little church in which he has to stand vigil each night, are sufficiently paced to ensure that the three short nights are quite effective as a horror counterpoint to the rest of the film, because of the contrast in pacing.

The film comprises nicely composed compositions for the stunted, rectangular shape of the aspect ratio with some nice, slow camera movements and a very specific colour palette made up mostly of muted blues and browns, which certainly give a striking look to the film in general. And the three later ‘vigil encounters’ with the witch are very well staged, especially the first one where, after an unexpected bunch of cats suddenly remove themselves from Khoma’s way (the second night it’s a batch of birds sitting on the coffin), the young lady rises and tries to push her way into the invisible force field created by Khoma’s chalk circle. The contrast between this scene and the majority of the scenes preceding it really do make this little set piece genuinely frightening for a while. In the last of the three vigils we finally get to meet the demon Viy, who reminded me a lot of the Golgothan monster used in Kevin Smith’s Dogma, to be honest. It’s an interesting creation and, although a bit anticlimactic in contrast to the first two vigils (the second of which features the witch lady surfing her floating coffin as it tries to bash it’s way into the circle), it has a certain charm to it when various demons, vampires and werewolves are summoned to intrude upon Khoma’s circle.

The score by someone called Karen Khachaturyan is quite good, although I can’t find any evidence of a commercial CD release of this, which is a shame. Indeed, the film even features exit music continuing on after the end titles have finished running. It’s certainly a little old fashioned, probably even for it’s time actually, compared to what America and other countries were doing with their horror scores then but it’s certainly effective and easy on the ears.. indeed, the encounter with the black cats even has a kind of musical stinger, as such.

And that’s me done with this version of Viy but I will just say that the image of the blind corpse of Natalya Varley feeling her way around the room and hitting the invisible, supernatural wall of protection with which Khoma has surrounded himself is one of those marvellous cinematic images which is arresting and lingers in the mind long after the film has played out. I can see why the film has such a reputation and it’s certainly one I’ll look at again.

No comments:

Post a Comment