Friday, August 19, 2011

Вий (Viy: Spirit of Evil) (1967)
RUSSIA --- horror

Dir: Georgi Kropachyov, Konstantin Yershov, Alexander Ptushko

"And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief." King James Bible - MARK 9: 24

Some stories never go out of style. Some tales can be relevant for ages. Some legends just stay with us. It may be marked by some inkling of truth and a very powerful message about the human condition. Faith will always be a part of the human condition, and the struggle between good and evil isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

The film Viy is about this very matter, faith and the struggle between good and evil and what happens when one's faith is put to the test. Based on an 1835 Ukranian folk tale published as a short story by Nikolai Gogol, the film tales the story of a young priest named Khoma Brutus (translated Thomas Brutus), who is on leave from seminary. He and some other students all leave in a big group to go out into the villages and return to their respective homes, but three get separated. So Khoma, Khaliava, and Gorobets soon find themselves out in the countryside alone, when they come across an isolated farmhouse. They go there to seek shelter for the night, when a reluctant old woman puts them up for a night. She then separates them to different sleeping areas, and leaves Khoma in the barn. Later that night, the old woman goes into the barn awakening him, and at first Khoma thinks the old woman is just attempting to seduce him, that is until he sees that something is far more wrong with her than sexual advances. She wants to get on his back and ride him like a beast of burden, which eventually through some enchantment, she does. The witch rides Khoma all over the countryside even flying above the ground, and when he is released from her spell, he beats her, only to witness her transformation into a beautiful young woman. Startled, he flees for his life, and returns to the Monastery.

Upon arrival, Khoma is soon told by the dean that the daughter of a rich Cossack has returned home beaten near to death, and is requesting for Khoma specifically to perform a vigil over her corpse for three nights after she dies. A bunch of cossacks are there to escort him, and to make sure he arrives in the village and does as promised, all Khoma wants is to go home. A short stop over at an inn with his escorts gets him drunk enough to brave the ride into the village. By the time they arrive, they learn the young woman has died. Khoma visits her the next day and her father begins to question him and his association with his daughter. Khoma is told, per her request to pray for her salvation for three nights and he will be richly rewarded. That day, they lay her body in an open coffin in a dank empty church, where he is to go and pray for her. The local Cossacks begin to tell Khoma of a huntsman who was fell in love with the girl. They tell a tale that sounds all too familiar to Khoma, about her riding on the huntsman's back. That night they lock Khoma in the church with the body, and as they say, the horror begins.

Khoma's first night is spent in fervent prayer, as he sets up candles around the church, with peering Rublev-esque icon paintings surrounding him. This doesn't stop the body of the woman to be creep out of her open coffin, as she heads to Khoma. Khoma draws a chalk circle around him and again prays for the lord's holy protection from such a clearly demonic spirit of evil. The witch disappears when the cock crows. Khoma does indeed survive his first night in the chamber, but after some borsch for breakfast and questioning from the village men about his night, he's reluctant to return with getting drunk on some vodka. Night two, the witch takes flight in her coffin and begins once again to break Khoma's faithful circle. She fails again, but not before casting a spell on Khoma that turns his hair white as snow. That day Khoma has pretty much lost it, as he takes to drink and dance. He goes to the rich cossack begging him for release from his duties. The cossack promises him one thousand lashes instead of one thousand pieces of gold if he fails to pray for his daughter. Khoma tries to flee for fear that he may not survive his final night. He may not have been wrong in that, as his third and final night turns out to be his most terrifying.

"Viy" is a witty and simplistic horror film that weaves its tale with simple suspense and a minimalist charming style. The film has a very gothic Hammer Studios-esque veneer. The filmmakers utilize very practical in-camera special effects. The gloomy but crisp analagous cinematography adds to set pieces, the actors all play their parts without a hitch, and the imagery of barnyard animals in all their noisy glory throughout the film lends to the toning down of the horror and suspense. What is "Viy" really trying to say? I believe it is about faith. The fact that this character is named Thomas can not be a coincidence, as we all know that the disciple/ apostle Thomas was remembered as being the one who doubted the appearance of the resurrected Jesus. The very idea that the town knows full well of this witch, and puts the student priest in the thick of danger is a testament of our own walks in faith. Notice the church was dank and desolate with cold candles, gloomy paintings of the dead saints, and no sign of any having been there for worship. The church was dead and Khoma's faith may have been as well. Whether Gogol was making a statement about the Russian church in his times, is up to the reader. This is a rare horror film from the once fully communist U.S.S.R., who sternly frowned upon such stories and this one actually marks the very first Russian horror film. The filmmakers were able to push it through because of its humourous take on the folktale and legendary Russian fantasy director, Alexander Ptushko,  I'm sure put his visionary stamp on it besides contributing to the screenplay.