Sunday, October 7, 2012

Piggybacking Witch

Once upon a time in Russia, there was a young seminarian who stumbled across something evil...

Viy or Spirit of Evil is most notable for being the first horror movie ever produced in the old Soviet Union. The film was made in 1965, but being a period piece with minimal dialogue, it feels almost like a silent film at times and definitely carries that aesthetic especially in its more fantastical parts. 
It's a simple plot that starts out light in tone with a group of seminary students clowning around while waiting to be dismissed on break. The story quickly establishes that the young seminarians are typical brash, carefree, irresponsible and somewhat foolish young men, particularly the lead character, Khoma, a young philosopher played by Leonid Kuravlyov. 

A big part of the theme of Viy involves the consequences of dodging moral responsibility - a surprisingly daring message to focus on for a film made in the USSR. The seminary and subsequent church settings are also eyebrow-raising considering the official party stance on religion. But much like science fiction, a lot of juicy subversiveness can be cloaked in the guise of horror and fantasy.

Throughout the tale, Khoma, attempts to flee responsibility and obligation only to be thrust right back into the position of dealing with the problem he helped create. He only reluctantly agrees to aid one of his seminary's benefactors, a local Cossack chieftain, when threatened with punishment by the seminary's head priest. Similarly, the chieftain's peasant workers, who come to collect Khoma for their boss, joke about having to tie him up to insure they get him back home. This craven irresponsibility doesn't necessarily make Khoma unpopular or uncharismatic. Indeed, even the peasants, who've been assigned to watch over him so he doesn't run off, take an immediate liking to him. But most of the characters seem to implicitly understand that unpleasant tasks and obligations are just an unavoidable part of life - something Khoma has yet to learn.

The initial set up and character building are fairly lighthearted and leisurely take over half the movie to play out. Once the story reaches the three nights of vigil at the church, however, it really raises the intensity level. And, although the first two night's events are concluded all too briefly, they involve a very well choreographed dance between the actors and camera that's quite captivating and enjoyable. The scenes are also aided immeasurably by the strikingly beautiful actress Natalya Varley as the witch/daughter. Her facial expressions and mime work are very engaging.

Finally, it's the third night of vigil at the church that is a visually creepy delight. Coupled with the increasing tension of the previous nights,  Khoma's ever more desperate desire to dodge the last night of vigil really ratchets up the suspense. Although some may carp about the slow burn trip to reach the ending, the payoff is quite satisfying both in terms of imagery and plot. 

My guess is most modern day horror fans would not like Viy as it is far too tame and art-house-y. On the other hand, I think a lot of kids may like the fairy tale aspects of the film if they can get past a few subtitles.  For a cool atmospheric double bill, I'd suggest watching Viy with Leslie Steven's Incubus as both have similar, strange, otherworldly feels about them in addition to some excellent imagery.
Lastly, there is a remake of Viy in the pipe that has finished filming and is set for release in 2013. Judging by the trailers it looks like a lot of fast cuts and CGI nonsense, but the scene in the church looks intact and somewhat faithful to the original. Here's hoping...

Viy final score: 7.5/10

No comments:

Post a Comment