Shudder is a great app. It’s about $4 for a subscription and you have access to some pretty great horror films, TV shows, and documentaries. This is mainstream classics (Halloween, Evil Dead, Heathers, Black Christmas), critically acclaimed films (A Girl Walks Alone at Night, Train to Busan), and some wild stuff I’d previously never heard of but found a ton of fun (Deadtectives, The Void). It’s especially great for an October night when you’re bored, maybe getting sick and looking for something to do while you’re lighting your pumpkin candles.
One such October night was last night when I stumbled across 1967’s Viy on their catalog. This was the first Soviet era horror film ever produced and is based on Nikolai Gogol’s short story of the same name about a philosophy student who finds himself forced to stand three night’s vigil over the corpse of a vengeful witch. It’s the goofiest film I’ve watched in a while, 1960s Russian special effects capabilities and ridiculous English dubbing making it weird enough to watch but there’s something particular about Russian produced art that hits western audiences in a weird way.
Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov) and his friends make the mistake of taking shelter with a haggard old woman in the wilderness when they become lost on their way to holiday from school. Khoma is singled out by the hag who seems to put a spell on him and forces him to gallop like a horse while she rides, and eventually flies, on his back. Khoma escapes and leaves the witch—now a beautiful young woman—for dead. His peace is short lived, however, when he is called back from the seminary by a wealthy landowner whose dying daughter has asked for Khoma by name and bribes the deacon. Khoma is forced back to face the witch over three nights of vigil over her dead body. Ultimately he succumbs to her magical assault.
First and foremost, it’s a hefty cultural film. The feudal culture of rural Ukraine, the specific kind of folklore and local legends passed between rural Russians and Ukrainians, the kinds of folk heroes rural folk aspire to be in Russian-controlled lands. It’s also a bleak and depressing film without any real emotional catharsis or overall thesis statement. Our protagonist, Khoma, is a rambunctious and drunkard of a philosopher, he’s selfish and immature. We don’t really feel bad for his plight, though it feels less like punishment and more like a freak occurrence of bad luck. He does not die as the result of any Biblical edict he broke or any concrete moral code. He simply became worn down after 3 nights of torment.
If the film makes any specific note, it’s on corruption of landowning classes and the church—and how they work together to ensure profit for themselves. It’s implied the woman’s father knows about her supposed witchcraft and trafficking with demons and offers Khoma a thousand gold pieces if he can cure his daughter’s soul and threatens him with beating and torture if he fails. Khoma, a promising if misguided young student, is sacrificed in the attempt by a rich man to cover up a dark family secret. Typical communist sensibilities around money and landowners.
Another interesting note about this film is its reliance on the traditional motifs in Eastern European folklore. Gogol posits in his story, the movie does the same thing, that Viy is a well known and renown demonic figure in Ukrainian folklore. That’s not true. Though Khoma comes in contact with many traditional figures of Slavic folklore including the “midnight dead” and the rusalka. But the story relies on the rule of proximity found in Slavic folklore (the farther from home you are, the more dangerous it is) as well as the widespread use of “trebling” in western folklore (things happen in threes).
What’s the point here? I watched a weird and fun movie, that was visually pretty stunning, despite the outdated and almost corny effects. The mood and tone built excellent tension that even got me a little nervous at times. I’ve always enjoyed “The Viy” and thought it had more potential as a horror film, though it never seemed to take off (likely because of the hyper-Slavic elements that would probably just confuse modern audiences in the west). Still, this was a pretty fun find on a Tuesday night in the fall. Maybe this whole thing was a plug for Shudder while I vomited my thoughts about an obscure Soviet horror film. If you made it this far, join Shudder and read the short story.