It’s interesting to see not only cultural differences in horror, but also the slow evolution of the genre. Nothing illustrates these differences as well as the 1967 Soviet horror film “Viy.” Framed as a folk tale to get around Soviet censors, “Viy” tells the story of Khoma Brutus (Leonid Kuravlev), a seminary student trying to survive a three day encounter with a witch (Natalya Varley). It’s a story that fits in beautifully with the likes of “The Exorcist” – a story of demons and the supernatural that focuses more on the fear of the unknown rather than on gore or psychological horror.
This is what a viewer might interpret the film as being about, if they skipped the ending. It could be a film about not fearing the unknown, or – more likely – not committing sacrilege or ticking off forces more powerful than oneself. However, the film chooses instead to say that the moral of the story is to not be afraid of things that very much want to hurt you, that bravery can overcome even the supernatural. This, in the context of bad things that were caused by a man killing a witch and by the sheer level of obedience required not to be afraid, seems to be a very strange moral.
Indeed, the fact that the film has a blatantly stated moral at all is an odd idea, but once again, a sign that it’s a relic from an older time and a different cultural background. “Viy” was the Soviet Union’s first horror film, and it can’t be entirely expected to break every norm. It’s very clearly an old film – some of the special effects and sets are laughably bad, even by 1960s standards – but it also has a clear heart and optimism to it. The emotion on Kuravlev’s face throughout, for instance, shows how deeply he is going into the role. Brutus is desperate and slowly going mad, and Kuravlev does an excellent job showing that.
Equally good are the scenes inside the chapel with the witch. While the witch had been built up somewhat over the course of the first half of the film, the audience really knows very little about her, especially since she’s now apparently dead. When her powers manifest they – and the protection from them – are surprising and legitimately scary, bad effects aside.
That said, the film’s greatest weakness lies in how it wastes its carefully built tension. In choosing to allow Brutus to leave the scary situation, it establishes that there is a way out, and that it’s Brutus’ choice to keep returning to the crypt. In saying that he’s actively choosing to do this, the message of facing fears and remaining brave is completely undermined. Brutus does face his fears – however reluctantly – by continuing to go into the crypt and stay in the presence of the witch.
On the whole, “Viy” is a confused, but interesting film. Its scares are largely outdated and unlikely to make you jump, but it’s an entertaining journey nonetheless. More, though, it’s an interesting look at Soviet cinema and how film can be made in an environment of censorship and regulation. “Viy,” in the end, is more interesting as a relic than as a film in its own right, though it has its moments, and certainly has style.Continue Reading Issue #24
November 27, 1967 (USSR)
1 hr. 17 min.
Horror, Drama, Fantasy
Konstantin Ershov, Georgi Kropachyov
Leonid Kuravlev, Natalya Varley, Aleksey Glazryin