You know, if I can say nothing else about the Hubrisween Challenge, it has given me instance to track down and find some movies I read about in the Famous Monsters of Filmland’s “Coming Distractions” articles that I had never seen, had been mentioned once, and then dropped off the radar. Shanks was one of them. Another I remember was – as was the case with FM, spelled out in capital letters: THE VIY – SPIRIT OF EVIL. That was unusual enough that it stuck with me, and likely the reason I referred to it as The Viy all these years. Nope, it’s just Viy. I can’t find any records of it actually getting a theatrical release in the US, either. AIP’s appropriation and repurposing of several Soviet genre films had been in the early 60s, and Viy didn’t see a release outside the USSR until 1970.
In any case, Viy keeps cropping up in genre books, so it was high time to give it a look. It’s based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol, itself a mixture of several Ukranian folk tales (Mario Bava’s Black Sunday is based on the same story, but far more loosely). A group of young student priests on summer break from a seminary in Kiev find themselves lost on the way to their village. They beg an old woman for shelter for the night, but she tells them they each have to stay in a different part of the house.
That night, in the barn, she visits Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov). Horrified, the young man thinks she is trying to seduce him, but instead she climbs on his back and starts riding him through the night like a horse. As the two fly up in the sky, he realizes she is a witch (duh) and begins shouting prayers, causing them to fall to earth. Once landed, he grabs a branch and begins beating the old woman. As she nears death, she turns into a beautiful young woman (Natalya Varley). Now sincerely freaked out, Khoma starts running and doesn’t stop until he gets back to Kiev.
Messengers soon arrive from a rich cossack in a remote part of the province; bearing gifts and donations to the monastery, they convey that their masters’ young daughter has been severely beaten, is near death, and has asked specifically for Khoma to come pray over her. The Rector forces the reluctant Khoma to go, though on arrival he finds that the daughter has died, and he is commanded to sit a prayer vigil in an old, ruined church with her coffin for three nights, her final request. The guilt-ridden Khoma has no choice but to comply.
Of course, the first night, she rises from her coffin, and Khoma hastily, fearfully draws a circle of protection in chalk around the stand holding his prayer book. While he prays, the corpse lurches around the room, hearing his voice, but unable to see him due to the circle. She presses against the circle like an unseen wall, to no avail. Finally, the cock crows and Khoma’s first night of terror is over.
The second night is no better. That night the witch rides around the church on her coffin like a goth Silver Surfer, using the casket as a battering ram against the circle. Again, the circle and scripture hold, and Khoma has survived again – but his hair has turned snow-white.
Khoma tries to refuse to sit the last night, he attempts escape, all to no avail. On the last night, the witch pulls out all the stops, summoning all manner of creatures of the night and outer darkness. They still cannot see Khoma, and finally the witch calls Viy, which seems to surprise and trouble even the creatures of the night. Viy comes, massive and ugly, telling the others to lift his heavy eyelids so he can see Khoma. The young priest knows that if he avoids eye contact, he will be safe – but then he hears the cock-crow, and he turns.
Viy shouts “I CAN SEE HIM!” and the monsters pile on Khoma. But, they were so excited they missed the first cock-crow, and when the second one comes, they try to escape, but are trapped half-in, half-out of the walls of the church like bad statuary, and the beautiful daughter returns to the withered form of the old crone. Khoma is dead, having paid the price for his sins, but the church is forever now a place of horrors, and abandoned.
It’s a good story, and where a typical American viewer might find fault with it is the languid pace – the vigils do not begin until halfway through the running time, and man, are nights ever short in that part of Russia! They’re also going to be confused by the seminarians. The dismissal of the students at the beginning of the movie is treated by the surrounding villagers like the arrival of the Mongol Horde, as the students are a thieving, venal bunch. Khoma himself is not a very upright man at all, and spends most of the three days of the vigil getting progressively drunker. Can’t have a Soviet film endorsing religion, I suppose.
The vigil scenes are the best part of the movie, and one wishes there were more; but as Samuel Fuller advised Bogdanovich when he was planning Targets, “save the money for the end of the picture”, and it has to be admitted the directors, Konstantin Ershov and Georgi Kropachyov have done just that: the last night is an absolute corker, and a whole lot of credit for that should probably go to Art Director Aleksandr Ptushko.
Ptushko was the director of some incredible and beautiful Russian fairy tale movies, Sadko, Ilya Muromets and Sampo. Or, as they are better known in America, The Magic Voyage of Sinbad, The Sword and the Dragon and The Day the Earth Froze. Yes, these have all been on MST3K, largely because of the ham-fisted attempts to de-Russianize them by AIP, but they are each wonderful movies in their own right and deserve to be sought out on their own merits. Sadly, the original versions are tough to come by, though their bowdlerized versions remain available.
Viy doesn’t have that problem, perhaps because it has remained unhampered by the perceived necessity of pretending it’s not Russian. With no English dub playing to the masses, it remains generally available in its original form, and worth a look.
Oh, alright, I know what you want, here’s the money shot: