A Journal Of The Dark Arts
Russia’s first horror movie, based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol, is an exquisite example of psychotronic Folk Horror!
If you’re reading this via some form of digital device, there’s a strong possibility that you live somewhere within the developed world. The odds are good that you’ve got electric light, running water, some form of indoor plumbing. You’ve probably got an icebox to preserve your food and a way to get more somewhat readily available, even if you’ve got to wear a mask to do so.
Living in modern society, it’s easy to forget – or not even realize in the first place – what a fearsome creature the Witch was to the pre-modern imagination. One failed crop or disease among yr livestock could be the difference between affluence and comfort and you and your family begging for alms, like something out of an Ingmar Bergman movie. And it’s difficult to imagine simply how dark the world was, before the advent of electric light. The sun sets early, especially in the autumn and winter, and the nights are long. ANYTHING could be out there, in the dark. It does not take much of a leap of imagination for you to be left clutching yr rosary and praying for dawn.
If you live in Western society and have any kind of exposure to popular media or pop culture, you’ve likely got a lifetime of exposure to the pop cultural conception of the Witch – she (and it’s almost always a woman) of the pointy hat and the green face and a wart on her long green nose. Witches are a figure of amusement and even titillation as often as not, making magick happen with a twitch of their cute button nose and having all-night orgies once the sun goes down.
Folk Horror, therefore, is the perfect vehicle for re-assessing the power, fear, and respect the Witch commanded in the medieval imagination.
(via Bloody Good Horror)
“Viy” is a Soviet Union era movie about a young seminarian named Khoma, who takes some kind of pilgrimage with two other priests in training. On their first night they stop to sleep at an old woman’s house. For some reason the old woman seems to take an liking to Khoma in particular, and she corners him in a stable, and she catches him and picks him up, and begins to fly through the countryside with him. Apparently the old woman is a witch and when Khoma realizes this he flips out and beats her to death with a stick, but before she dies she turns into a beautiful young woman.
Khoma flees the scene and when he gets back to his seminary the head priest tells him a young woman was beaten to death, but as she died she told her father that she asked for Khoma, by name, to pray for her three nights before her burial (I assume that the three nights of prayer were to symbolize the three days of Christ’s death and resurrection). Khoma is terrified because he realizes it is the witch, but he is forced to carry out the task anyway.
On the first night when he goes to pray for the witch she comes to life, and Khoma draws a sacred circle around where he prays, so she can’t hurt him. On the second night her coffin flies around the room and tries to smash through the circle. On the third night the witch summons all manner of intricately designed demons and monsters to destroy Khoma for her. There are so many of them that they literally come out of the wood-work, and the witch eventually summons one final demon named “Viy”, with the ability to see Khoma through his sacred circle.
Viy is based on the short story by Nikolai Gogol, which was also the source material for Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (which we reviewed yesterday to kick off the beginning of 31 Days Of Horror as well as Witch Week.) Bava’s adaptation basically only retained the body-swapping Witch, however, while Georgiy Kropachyov and Konstantin Ershov version is much truer to Gogol’s story.
The very fact that Viy exists at all and can be watched make it a treasure worth seeing. The Russian censors during the Soviet Era were notoriously strict (just look at the debacle around the publishing of the Soviet Sci-Fi classic Roadside Picnic as an example). The obscurity and rarity of this film, coupled with a genuinely charming ’60s aesthetic, make Viy a must-see for fans of Folk Horror and quaint, cozy ’60s movies alike.
I’m not going to lie or even pretend at being unbiased or objective. I love old movies. If something is shot in Kodachrome or Technicolor there’s a good chance i’ll love it, and Viy is no exception. I enjoyed this short, strange film as much for the iconic (literally) paintings of Jesus on the rough wooden ceiling of the church and the faded glory of roosters, rolling hillsides, and vodka drinking cossacks.
Tonally, Viy is a strange film. It’s stronger on the Folk than the Horror. If this were made in the United States, this would be some After School Special starring Shelley Duvall, maybe playing Martha Washington or Mrs. O’ Leary. Now, imagine either of those characters flying around in a levitating coffin, like Hausu doing the Red Baron. What more do you need, really?
Viy isn’t really scary. Instead, it’s more phantasmagoric, surreal, like a Soviet take on the dream-like quality of Valerie and Her Week Of Wonders. That should tell all the resident hauntologists you need to see this film immediately! And the somewhat quaint, cozy, somnolent pacing of the film’s setup just makes the truly nutso climax all that much of a mindfuck!
Overall, i’m giving Viy 3 1/2 skulls for atmosphere, surrealism, strangeness, and rarity.
Viy can be streamed on Shudder or Tubi.
Welcome to 31 Days Of Horror! Each day this month, i’ll be reviewing and recommending horror movies, in addition to other media, art, and culture relating to the Horror genre. Make sure to check back as this site’s about to run red with more delicious horror madness than you could shake a stake at.
We’ve got a pretty stacked queue already, but am always open to suggestions, recommendations, and just knowing what y’all would like to see on this site. And what are y’all watching, reading, and listening to, this Season of the Witch?
Also, follow me on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and Letterboxd, for even more horror aesthetics and inspiration. Every day is Halloween here in the Forestpunk turret, so we’re looking forward to unleashing our plague of madness and wonders on the world. Happy October!