Viy, which was directed by Konstantin Ershov and Georgiy Kropachyov but believed to primarily be the work of the groundbreaking and acclaimed Ukrainian director/animator/special effects artist Aleksandr Ptushko, is often considered to be the first and only straight-up supernatural horror film made in the Soviet Union. The cinema of the USSR was kept under the watchful eye of the authorities, so had to fit the ideologies they wanted to instil among their people. The horror genre’s lack of hope and emphasis on fear didn’t sit well with intended messages of triumph and optimism, so it was kept from mass consumption.
Elements of horror did slip through the cracks in numerous films, but Viy managed to really knock the door down largely due to its source material. The film was based on a story by Nikolai Gogol, a hugely revered figure in Russian literature, so it’s production was seen as a prestigious adaptation of his work. A caption at the start of the film even tries to make it clear that Gogol’s story was based on traditional folktales, rather than horrific fantasy, despite there being no record of any folktales surrounding the titular creature.
Viy was a big success in the USSR on its release, but it still didn’t manage to encourage more horror films to move into production in the state. After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the individual nations that were part of it have since made many more horror movies, but Viy remains an interesting anomaly from the era.
Eureka are releasing Viy on Blu-ray in the UK, as part of their Masters of Cinema series. This initial Limited Edition set also contains Djordje Kadijevic’s 1990 take on Gogol’s ‘Viy’ story, A Holy Place. Intrigued by both titles, I requested a screener so I could review them.
Strangely, the inclusion of A Holy Place is not noted on the cover. Perhaps it’s left off as it might not appear in a future ‘standard edition’ release of Viy, or maybe it’s simply because it hasn’t been as handsomely remastered (see my AV comments towards the end of this post). The film is instead treated more like a special feature, but I’ve given it fair coverage below in my review.
Directors: Konstantin Ershov, Georgiy Kropachyov
Screenplay: Konstantin Ershov, Georgiy Kropachyov, Aleksandr Ptushko
Based on a Story by: Nikolay Gogol
Starring: Leonid Kuravlyov, Natalya Varley, Aleksey Glazyrin, Nikolay Kutuzov, Vadim Zakharchenko, Pyotr Vesklyarov
Country: Soviet Union
Running Time: 77 min
Viy opens at a seminary where its far-from-Godly students cause chaos in the local village when they break up for the term. Three such young men get lost that evening, during the revelries, and end up taking shelter in a small homestead out in the wilderness. It’s owned by an old lady (played, strangely enough, by an old man) who separates the trio for the night.
Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov), one of the three men, is put in the barn and, that night, the old lady enters and forces herself on him. Khoma tries to shun her unexpected advances but she overpowers him with a strange force and literally rides him out of the barn and into the night like a broomstick. When they land, Khoma savagely beats the witch but, just before he runs away, she turns into a beautiful young woman (Natalya Varley).
Back in the seminary, Khoma is summoned by his Rector and ordered to travel out to a remote village. A rich merchant lives there and his daughter had been badly beaten up. She asked specifically for Khoma to come and pray for her soul before she died. She passes away before he gets there, but the merchant demands that Khoma still carries out his daughter’s dying wish, praying for her soul over the next three nights.
As you might have guessed, the young woman is the witch Khoma came across before, so he’s reluctant to perform the night-time prayer readings, but he’s forced through threats of a savage beating.
Each night then, Khoma is locked in the village church and tries to read from the bible whilst the witch comes momentarily alive and attempts to exact revenge on her murderer. Initially finding safety in a sacred circle he draws in the ground, Khoma finds his task increasingly difficult as the witch’s attacks grow ever more devastating, culminating in a veritable orgy of demons appearing on the final night, including the titular Viy.
The big selling point of Viy are its special-effects-laden set-pieces. As mentioned in my introduction, Aleksandr Ptushko is believed to be the main creative force behind the film and the scenes of horror and witchcraft have his fingerprints all over them. Utilising several simple but highly effective techniques, the effects work is very impressive, even if it seems a little dated by today’s standards. The ‘sacred circle’ effect for instance, though clearly achieved using a glass barrier, works like a charm and is further enhanced through ostentatious 360-degree camera movement around the circle.
The finale is where Ptushko’s work really comes to the fore though. A multitude of creatures literally come out of the woodwork through some clever visual trickery and their makeup is disturbingly bizarre. Viy himself is a little naff-looking perhaps, but his horde of minions are genuinely creepy.
Contrary to the excesses of the finale, what also impressed me about Viy was its economy in storytelling. Avoiding any narrative flab, the film is incredibly lean and to-the-point, simply focussing on Khoma’s ordeal and little else. I’ve long been a fan of this type of minimalist approach, so the film played very much to my tastes. I appreciated the injection of humour too, largely through the frequently intoxicated Khoma and his attempts to escape.
I also liked the score a lot. Composed by Karen Khachaturyan, it’s a rich and melodic accompaniment to the film, enhancing it without overplaying emotion or shocks.
Overall then, Viy is an efficient and effective fantasy horror film that might not be particularly frightening anymore but has plenty of atmosphere, an array of wonderful old-school special effects and a truly memorable climax.
A Holy Place (a.k.a. Sveto mesto)
Director: Djordje Kadijevic
Screenplay: Djordje Kadijevic
Based on a Story by: Nikolay Gogol
Starring: Dragan Jovanovic, Branka Pujic, Aleksandar Bercek
Running Time: 90 min
A Holy Place was a low-budget co-production between a small producer and Yugoslavian state TV. It had a very limited theatrical release before being swiftly dumped on TV a few months later. Playing at a time when the country was in political turmoil (the Yugoslav Wars were looming on the horizon), the public wasn’t interested in horror movies.
So, the film soon disappeared. In recent years, however, some film festivals have picked it up and A Holy Place has gained a little more recognition. In this Blu-ray set, it works to show an alternative take on the ‘Viy’ source material.
Generally speaking, A Holy Place follows the same plot as Ptushko’s Viy. Once again, we follow the trials of a seminarian (now named Toma and played by Dragan Jovanovic) as he is forced to pray for the soul of a witch (Branka Pujic) that he killed.
However, A Holy Place does make a few changes, or chiefly additions, to cut its own path. Most notably, writer-director Djordje Kadijevic fleshes out the witch character (here named Katarina) through a series of flashbacks. These further emphasise another key change in the material, the overt sexualisation of it.
We see Katarina effectively castrate one of her male servants and seduce another female one, among other devious sexual acts. There’s also a clear suggestion that she had an incestuous relationship with her father. This all serves to create quite a different disturbing atmosphere to the film.
Also altered here are the ‘set-pieces’, which can hardly be called such. Gone are the elaborate special effects and scores of creatures in the finale. Instead, Kadijevic strips things back even further than before, keeping the violence more minimal and realistic, for the most part.
As such, A Holy Place is less technically impressive than its predecessor so proves a harder sell, but I did appreciate its subtle approach. It’s certainly unsettling, though its low-budget origins are clear at times, with scenes kept cramped in tight sets/locations as opposed to Viy’s elaborately designed gothic surroundings (at least in the church scenes).
I didn’t find the cast as impressive either. The lead, Jovanovic, is rather uncharismatic, not helped by Kadijevic’s much more dour approach to the story. Ptushko’s version is given life through humour, in comparison.
So, in conclusion, the stark style of this later adaptation of the ‘Viy’ story is effectively unsettling but, in adding elements to the story I felt it diluted and cheapened it at times. The po-faced gloominess doesn’t stand up against Viy either, but, taken on its own terms, A Holy Place remains a quietly creepy and erotically-charged horror film.
Viy is out on 15th March on Limited Edition Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. Viy itself looks good. There are very slight colour fluctuations at times and the overall colour is quite muted, but this is presumably the intended style. Detail is strong though and there is little to no damage on the picture. The audio comes through very nicely too, particularly the wonderful score.
A Holy Place is a different story. Despite being made not too long ago (relatively speaking), the print is badly scratched, with a few scenes looking particularly damaged. Detail is low in dark patches too, though the image is sharp and detailed overall. I also found there was a strange rhythmic jerkiness to the film, suggesting the framerate had been poorly altered. The film’s audio is not bad though.
The Limited Edition Blu-ray set includes:
– Exclusive O-Card Slipcase
– 1080p presentation on Blu-ray
– Original Russian mono audio
– Optional English mono audio
– Optional English subtitles and English SDH
– Brand new audio commentary with film historian and eastern European cinema expert Michael Brooke
– Brand new video essay on Russian novelist and VIY author Nikolai Gogol
– Archival documentary on Nikolai Gogol
– Three Russian silent film fragments, The Portrait [1915, 8 mins], The Queen of Spades [1916, 16 mins], and Satan Exultant [1917, 20 mins]
– Newly commissioned sleeve artwork by Peter Savieri
– Original 1967 Trailer
– PLUS: A Collector’s Booklet featuring a new essay on Aleksandr Ptushko by Tim Lucas, and a new essay by Serbian writer and film critic Dejan Ognjanovic
EXCLUSIVE BONUS DISC: A HOLY PLACE [Sveto mesto] (1990, dir. Djordje Kadijevic)
– An adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s short story and a stunning example of Serbian Gothic cinema from director Djordje Kadijevic. Described by critic Dejan Ognjanovic as “an unparalleled excess of perversity and terror”
– New Interview with A HOLY PLACE director Djordje Kadijevic (Limited Edition Exclusive Only)
Michael Brooke’s commentary is fascinating and well-researched, providing a lot of background on Gogol’s story as well as the work of Aleksandr Ptushko.
The archive Gogol documentary calls him a great realist author, which surprised me given the fantastical nature of ‘Viy’. The piece is rather dated and overly reverential, spending much of the time simply looking at places where he lived and imagining what he’d do in each of them, but it offers some valuable background to the author here and there. It describes many of the artists influenced by his work too.
The new essay on Gogol is much more informative, so is your best starting point on discovering more about the author.
The silent shorts are all fragments of feature films so consist of several scenes rather than complete stories but some stand alone effectively enough.
There are some simple but very effective special effects used in The Portrait, making it a fun little horror short. The man coming out of the painting feels like a precursor to Demons 2 or Ring.
The Queen of Spades is a bit more standard in construction but is fairly decent for the period.
Satan Exultant is more fleshed out than the other shorts and quite atmospheric, though it’s also the one that doesn’t effectively stand alone without the rest of the original film, as the others do.
On the A Holy Place disc you get an interview with Djordje Kadijevic, in which he discusses his career in fair detail. Like the Soviet authorities did with Viy though, Kadijevic tries to distance his film and the original story from the horror genre. He describes his films as ‘fantasies’ and derides typical horror movies. So his interview might rub horror buffs up the wrong way.
You also get one of Eureka’s well-compiled booklets and it’s as fascinating as always. The writing about Ptushko made me particularly eager to dig deeper into the filmmaker’s oeuvre.
Overall, it’s another winning release from Eureka that comes strongly recommended.