1 Hr., 17 Mins.
Viy October 5, 2020
iy (1967), the first Soviet-era Russian horror movie to get an official release in the USSR, feels like a precursor to latter-day projects like Sleepy Hollow (1999) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). It’s mostly fanciful — it has a kind of folklorish preciousness — but it also has an appropriate dash of genuine horror. The film opens with a trio of seminary students traveling home together for vacation. They get
lost en route but, fortuitously, stumble on a farmhouse just as their legs are about to give out. The property is seemingly owned by a very-old woman (Nikolai Kutuzov); she obliges when the three ask if they can stay. She notes, though, that she has little to offer them by way of food, and that lodging will be no-frills. (They’ll be sleeping in different corners of her farmhouse.) It will have to do for a night. The de-facto leader of the group, burly Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov), won’t be sleeping well: just as he’s turning in for the night, the woman approaches him, apparently intending to seduce him; then she seemingly puts him under a spell when he recoils. Suddenly, she’s on his back, and they’re floating through the countryside as if he were one and the same as a broomstick.
When Khoma shakes off his stupor, he freaks out, and impulsively beats the woman with a stick. She almost dies. That she might be some kind of "being" — most likely a witch — rather than a harmless old woman is made especially clear when, as Khoma looks down at the barely moving body of the woman he’s just battered, she has transformed from ancient-looking to classically young and beautiful. Her patchy hair has filled out into a supermodel-esque black mane; her newly girlish eyes have a catty curl. Khoma frantically scurries all the way back to the seminary in fear. But once he arrives, it’s evident karmic interference won’t back down. He’s told by the Rector there that a nearby merchant wants Khoma specifically to perform funeral rites for his daughter who has been in an accident and is about to die. The daughter, naturally, is the woman Khoma has attacked. She dies shortly after he makes it to her father’s property.
For three nights, Khoma is locked in a candlelit room with her corpse for what seems to be an extended wake. Predictably (in no way do we see this movie not descending into the nightmarish), each evening will involve the witch (?)
temporarily rising from her coffin to terrorize him. Khoma keeps her off his back by keeping himself inside a hastily drawn sacred circle. When she bumps into its boundaries, it’s like she’s hitting a transparent dome. It isn’t until the third night, though, that she really puts on a show. It’s a bacchanal where all the invited guests are physically wacky demons; one of them has eyebrows so long and heavy that they need help lifting them up. It’s in these climactic scenes of terrorization that the movie is most visually remarkable, too: in line with Mario Bava’s 1960s output, they merge a luscious technicolor palette with the macabre.
Based on an 1800s horror novella by Nikolai Gogol, Viy is frightening in a what-if-this-happened-to-me kind of way — concise like an E.C.-Comic short. It’s also as loud in its castigation of Khoma’s misogyny (this is of course a kind of moral tale, too) as it is in delivering cheap thrills. At 77 minutes, Viy is a vision of what more horror movies should be — so confident in their premise and presentation they need not belabor the point. B