Having previously served as the inspiration for Mario Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio, Nikolai Gogol’s short story The Viy receives a more faithful adaptation here. The Bava connection is an important one, as Georgi Kropachyov and Konstantin Yershov’s film has a look that brings to mind the Italian’s attempt at another Russian tale, namely Aleksey Tolstoy’s The Wurdalak from his portmanteau feature I tre volti della paura (Black Sabbath).
Purporting to be the first horror film made in Soviet Russia – one can’t begin to imagine what Comrade Censor must have thought when presented with this. Viy tells the story of Khoma (Kuravlyov), a student at a monastery in Kiev. While travelling home at the end of term with two fellow seminarians the group become lost. As night falls they find lodgings at the house of an old woman. Khoma is put up in the stable and settles down to sleep, but his slumber is disturbed by the old woman, who he suspects is trying to seduce him. This isn’t the case as at the first opportunity she leaps onto his back and the two of them are soon flying through the night sky. Realising he has been caught by a witch, Khoma struggles free and clubs the old woman to the ground with a handy stick. Before his eyes the dying hag transforms into a beautiful girl (Varley) and Khoma flees the scene. Back at the monastery a delegation arrives demanding that Khoma must accompany them back to their village to watch and pray over the corpse of a young girl for three nights. Arriving at the village the student soon discovers that he must spend the nights locked in the church alone with the body of the very witch he’d left for dead.
The performances are broad and largely comic for the majority of the film. The supporting cast are a gallery of grotesques who look like they’ve stumbled out of a painting by Goya or Brueghel senior. But it’s on the technical level that Viy really stands out. From the flight of the witch, Khoma’s drunken experiences in a tavern right through to the outlandish finale, the directors pull out all the stops. While the barrage of effects seldom look realistic – with the filmmakers constantly running the risk of over-reaching themselves – it’s impossible not to be won over by the sheer audacity of the production. The scenes of Khoma’s three-night vigil are as good as anything being produced in western horror cinema at the time. The interior of the church is magnificently realised with tortured icons leering from the shadows along with a steady flow of cats and birds all eager to deliver a cheap scare on the unsuspecting Khoma.
On the first night the corpse rises from her coffin and attempts to gain entry to the protective circle in which Khoma has placed himself. By the second night the witch has taken to using her coffin as a battering ram. But it is all to no avail and the cock crows, signalling the arrival of a new day. The student emerges with his soul, if not his wits, still intact. With just one night left, the witch calls on all the powers of evil at her. All manner of imps and demons appear, some crawling down the walls of the church like the orcs of Moria in Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring. In many ways Viy has much in common with Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films of nearly twenty years later, as both feature similarly dizzying camera work, boundless energy and simply refuse to acknowledge the technical limitations placed on them.
All this frenetic over-indulgence does have one downside. The Viy himself – the ultimate spirit of evil – makes for a rather underwhelming and laughable creation when he finally puts in an appearance. But by then maybe you, like Georgi and Konstantin, are having too much fun to really care.