Directors/Co-screenwriters: Konstantin Ershov, Georgi Kropachyov
By Roderick Heath
Nikolai Gogol’s story “Viy” was included in a volume of his story collection Tales of Mirgorod. Like his most famous tale, the historical novella “Tara Bulba” included in the same collection, “Viy” was a tribute to the wealth of history and traditions of rural Ukraine and southern Russia and the people who live there, particularly the Cossack nations. Gogol nominally based his story in real myths he harvested in the region, but the tale’s basic underpinnings have a vital similarity to ghost story traditions from right around the world, those stories in which a callow young man on the road encounters an evil spirit in the form of a woman. Gogol essentially invented his variation however, including the title character, a troll king who appears in the climax of the tale, whilst trying to capture the flavour of the parochial traditions he was steeped in and was trying to convey fervently, in an age when literature was often urgently engaged with trying to define the supposed ethereal quintessence of national cultures. Although his literature was often devoted to excoriating the absurd and backward aspects of his time and its culture, Gogol was a committed Slavophile, and eventually finished up subscribing to a brand of fervent religious nationalism. This faith first pushed him to try and extend his novel Dead Souls into a parable exploring the whole Russian character, before burning the new material he had written, depression and ill-health reinforcing his new conviction that art was profane. In the following century, the Soviet government was notoriously averse to morbid and mystical themes in art. When Viy was filmed in 1967, it was the first horror film ever produced in the Soviet Union.
Writer and filmmaker Konstantin Ershov and production designer Georgi Kropachyov joined forces to create a more faithful adaptation and shared directing credits on the result. Another filmmaker contributing to the script was Aleksandr Ptushko, known at the time in Soviet cinema for his special effects work and for directing fantasy films, including a 1935 version of Gulliver’s Travels, and the 1956 epic Ilya Muromets (which Mystery Science Theatre 3000 aficionados might recall under the title The Sword and the Dragon). Ptushko also provided Viy’s simple yet ebullient, ingeniously deployed visual effects. Perhaps to clear ground for a work in a genre held in such opprobrium by the authorities, Viy offers a wry, even comic take on horror film, albeit one that also works up a peculiar intensity in its second half. Gogol’s story was an ideal subject to break the moratorium. A work resting squarely in the classic canon of Russian literature, it was based in safely historical, distant regional traditions and without any suggestion of psychological metaphor or transgressive meaning. Viy is rife with black humour mediating the onslaughts of supernatural menace, with a streak of anti-clerical and socially critical humour that squarely mocks institutions of Russian society held as old, decrepit, and outmoded under the Soviets. “Viy” had already served as inspiration for Mario Bava’s great debut film La Maschera del Demonio (1960), although that story had taken the setting, a Slavic backwater, and the theme of an evil witch tormenting men of learning, and married it to a more traditional type of vampire story and Bava’s potent brand of erotically charged evil. Viy, on the other hand, is closer to “The Wurdalak” episode in Bava’s I Tre Volti della Paura (1963), in conjuring a sense of blasted, paranoid anxiety in the sharp opposition of the great expanses of the Steppes and a claustrophobic outpost under supernatural siege.
The opening scenes hit a note of raucous good-humour as it depicts a mob of young seminarians in a Kiev monastery being released into the unsuspecting world for vacation, molesting washer women, lampooning their rector by trying to make a goat read, stealing food from vendors, and generally running riot. The distinctly unholy behaviour of the religious students, told off by the Rector (Pyotr Vesklyarov) for their wild ways before they flee into the countryside, sets off a tale where the vital tension lies between the way things are supposed to be and the unruly reality beneath, where the ultimate evil is a creature that can see all, as long as it can keep its eyes open. The seminarians travel on foot in gradually shrinking groups as they split and head towards their home towns. Three of the students, theologian Khaliava (Vadim Zakharchenko), rhetorician Tibery Gorobets (Vladimir Salnikov), and philosopher Khoma Brutus (Leonid Kuravlyov), are eventually all that is left of one of these travelling bands, and, as night falls, they get lost in the hinterland. Balking at camping under the stars, they keep groping in the dark until eventually they come across a farmhouse. They beg the old woman who seems to be the householder (actually played by a man, Nikolay Kutuzov) for a place to sleep for the night. The crone replies her house is already full of guests, but eventually agrees to stash them in different places. Khoma gets his bed in the stable on a pile of straw.
During the night, the crone enters the stable and advances on him with an apparently lustful look: “No, it’s Lent,” Khoma exclaims: “And you couldn’t tempt me for all the gold in the world!” But the crone picks him up with peculiar strength, manipulates him like a toy, and climbs on his back, making him carry her like a horse. Once she gets him outside, she grabs a broom and levitates, carrying him under her legs, for a flight across the countryside reminiscent of Faust’s journey with Mephistopheles in F.W. Murnau’s 1926 film of that story. Khoma realises he’s in the clutches of a witch, and when the crone lands, Khoma grabs up a stick and furiously beats her. Suddenly, the crone turns into a beautiful young woman who gasps that he’s killing her, and Khoma recoils in shock. Leaving the battered and bleeding girl in the field, Khoma dashes off through the reed-choked swamps and eventually makes his way back to the seminary. But there he finds that his peculiar destiny is not going to let go of him. A gang of Cossacks from an outlying village has arrived in search of him, and arranged with the Rector to ensure he goes with them back to their village, to say prayers for a girl who has died. All Khoma is told is that he was specifically insisted upon by the girl’s father, and that he’s going to attend whether he likes it or not, as the Rector feels he needs a good punishment for his rowdy ways. When they reach the village, Khoma learns that the dead girl, Pannochka (Natalya Varley), named him as the man to pray for her, and her father is local boyar. He demands that Khoma pray in the church over his daughter’s body for the prescribed three night period on the promise of 1,000 gold coins if he fulfils the task or 1,000 lashes if he doesn’t. And, of course, Pannochka proves to be the witch he killed.
Viy has a strain of sly, even cruel irony underlying its playful surface that slowly emerges, as it studies a situation Khoma falls into and realises he has no way out of save death or triumph. To triumph means he must draw on resources he, as a man officially studying to become a religious and philosophical luminary, knows he doesn’t have. The tumult of the raucous, randy, hungry students fleeing the seminary at the outset gives way to glorious surveys of the open Russian countryside, a place of seemingly endless bounties. Only then does the scope of the drama compress, the trio of pompous scholars promptly getting lost in a field as the sun goes down. Khoma finds his world reduced first to the village he is brought to, a septic little kingdom where the boyar rules, and then to the confines of the village church, a place cordoned off from the normal rules of reality, where elemental battles will take place. Khoma however is a citizen of a grey zone that permits him no easy identity: unwilling to devote himself to religious strictures but, as an intellectual in a theocratic society, having no other recourse but the church, he’s been ripped from his roots in the Cossack village: he can still sing along with his fellows from the region, but is left an object of curiosity mixed with contempt. Much of which Khoma deserves. He is, by his own confession, a slovenly student and potential clergyman. Whilst trying to talk the boyar out of forcing him to make his vigil, Khoma denies he’s known for his piety: “I visited a baker’s wife on Maundy Thursday!” He’s better at carousing and eating, but these prove futile escapes from the duty he is obligated to perform. His attempts to escape the village constantly prove embarrassing jokes, as the boyar’s men easily corral him.
This aspect of Viy has a certain thematic similarity to Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes (1964), as an outsider finds himself trapped and pressganged into meeting the needs of a tiny, virtually forgotten community on the fringes of civilisation. A quality in Gogol’s writing that anticipated the later emergence of surrealism, the Theatre of the Absurd, and the peculiar imaginings of Franz Kafka is also detectable. Khoma’s situation plays like an inversion of Kafka’s The Castle, in which the protagonist can’t escape being locked in rather than locked out (Dead Souls pivots on a similarly surreal notion, a plot to make money from serfs who are literally dead, but alive in a bureaucratic and financial sense). Meanwhile, the ritualistic structure of the churchman repeatedly going into battle with an evil force that possesses a young girl anticipates The Exorcist (1973), although that film’s iron-cast moral certainties are mocked well beforehand as the representative of holy certitude here is hardly an ideal avatar, and his battle against evil is more like an extended, drunken attempt to simply weather the storm. Ershov and Kropachyov play up the sardonic side of Gogol’s tale in regards to religion and also social power evinced by various forms of elder, be it the Rector who sends Khoma off gruffly to his fate, or the boyar who forces Khoma to do his bidding. In the style of the morality-play quality apparent in many a real folk tale, Khoma represents hypocrisy, drunkenness, and self-indulgence.
Under pressure, Khoma’s roots in the hard-drinking, hard-living Cossack way are swiftly revealed, whilst to the villagers he represents a momentary insight into a way of life usually cordoned off from their own: “Just what are you seminarians taught?” one demands to know: “What the deacon says when he’s in church, or other things?” Khoma, hardly paying attention, performs an expert trick with his vodka cup, making his drinking companions coo in wonderment, “What a great scholar! I want to be a seminarian too!” The filmmakers inject a visual joke as Khoma, thoroughly soused, sees three different versions of the same man emerging from three tavern doors. For all his faults, though, once Khoma feels the heavy hand on his shoulder the smiling face only briefly distracts from, and is forced to go through with his terrifying vigil, he has our sympathy, for his reactions are only to a strange, arbitrary, humiliating world only slightly more coherent than the manifestations of the supernatural that dog him. The sight of the old witch turning Khoma into her personal pony-boy, laced with perverse erotic suggestions even as it’s played for laughs, is echoed later when one of the villagers recounts how Pannochka ran off with one of the young men of the village, who carried her out on his shoulders. The villagers were well aware Pannochka was a witch; only her father had no clue, and although he senses something strange in her dying wish to receive holy rites from this specific, unworthy representative of religion, nonetheless he commits grimly to the task.
Although very different in style with its breezy, straightforward storytelling to the more esoteric aesthetics of Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov, two of Soviet cinema’s highest-profile talents of the day, Viy shares a spirit in common with their works nonetheless, for it tries to convey an authentically folkloric vision and a quintessence of one corner of the cultural inheritance. That’s the part of the psychic landscape within that inheritance, where the collective memory has hazy fringes, the place where ancestors lived and the things they took to be trye still takes on a type of reality, if only in the freakish fancies lurk and the monstrosities parents use to keep their children in line in grimly prophetic parables. The Viy itself, although made up by Gogol, has exactly that quality of something plucked out of a bedtime boogeyman tale. The actual root for the creation is, perhaps ironically, thought to be the Christian Saint John Cassian the Unmerciful, a religious hero who strangely gained a quality close to demonic in later folklore because of his reputation of extremely harsh judgement, and who had similarly incisive, excoriating vision that nonetheless was only selectively uncovered when he brushed back his long hair. Fittingly, Ershov and Kropachyov’s aesthetic in Viy’s fantasy sequences is rooted in stage pantomime and magic-lantern shows, rejecting the realism that was just starting to become dominant in Western horror cinema. Ershov, Kropachyov, and Ptushko utilise the space of the village church as a theatrical space where illusionism reigns. The old wooden carvings and creepy icons painted on the walls and carefully manipulated candle lighting sets the scene, surveyed upon first entrance by the slowly pivoting camera movements, like a bullring or battleground in a Sergio Leone film, ideal for the basic spiritual conflict all the infrastructure of the settled, Christian world is supposed to hold at bay. Stray cats and birds suddenly scuttle through the old, creepy space.
The mounting spectacle of Khoma’s vigils starts with the witch girl climbing out of her coffin and searching for him, whilst Khoma has, in obedience to Ukrainian folk ritual, drawn a magic chalk circle about the lectern from which he reads Bible quotes. The witch is blind to him and held out of the circle, meaning she can only frantically slaw at the invisible barricade, before the cock’s crow drives her back into her coffin. The second night sees the witch levitating her coffin and trying to use it to bash her way through the circle, flying around the church as if in her own personal zero-gravity dodgem car, whilst Khoma bellows panicky prayers and tosses boots at her. When she fails she curses him, leaving him momentarily blind and also with his hair turned snowy white. Moments of pure fairytale strangeness flit by, like a tear of blood sliding down Pannochka’s face as she lies on her bier. The staging in these scenes conveys both a sense of absurdist humour in the confrontations between terrified churchman and vengeful witch, and crescendo of the beguiling strangeness of the supernatural as envisioned here, with the camerawork suddenly turning frantic and aggressive, as when Pannochka furiously stalks around the limits of Khoma’s protective circle, and the sight of her trying to bash through the barrier with her flying coffin. These scenes also get a kick out of the peculiar manifestation of evil in the form of Varley’s pale-faced, dark-eyed teenage witch, a lovely visage possessed of a wilful desire to destroy Khoma. She anticipates Linda Hayden’s flower-decked pagan priestess in The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970) in embodying malevolence with the most seemingly innocent, beguiling surface imaginable.
The special effects are lovable for their refusal of complex artifice, and retain that magic-lantern show quality. When the witch levitates with Khoma under her, it’s obvious that they’re on a rotating stage as if in some theatrical production. Khoma’s attempt to flee the village, charging through underbrush, is depicted through looping reversals of film stock, his complete inability get anywhere dictated by the film technique. The finale goes for broke as the filmmakers offer pantomime monsters and skeletal hydras whilst playing games with the visuals – Khoma remains in colour whilst the arising army of the night loom and leer around him in sepulchral black and white. Each of Khoma’s nights of vigil leaves him increasingly fraught and desperate to escape his lot, alternating with vodka-brave pronunciations. When he’s brought out of the church after the second night, he starts into a bizarre dance, an attempt to convince himself he’s just spent a brief, hair-raising time-out from the more important business of carousing, but succeeding only in testifying to his own fraying nerves and sanity. His dance is a pathetic but also vigorous sight, the only likeness I can think of being the infamous “Flashdance” scene in Dogtooth (2010), in depicting someone who knows they’re about to go mad if they don’t escape but also knows they can’t escape and so converts raw panic into a furious proof of life. Kuravlyov’s performance hits grand heights here.
The film reaches a riotous climax as Khoma ventures into the church for his third night with airy, drunken hopes for his future, only to face the final onslaught of the witch’s efforts to break him, as she calls up all manner of ghouls and goblins to attack him. The final monster she conjures is the Viy itself, a monstrous, misshapen troll with outsized droopy eyelids that conceal crystalline eyes that can see through the mystical protective barrier protecting Khoma: the Viy has to get other ghouls to lift its eyelids back so it can see, but then is able to point out their prey and the monsters attack Khoma just as the cock crows for dawn again. Khoma loses his battle with fate, dying from fright as he’s assaulted. But this proves the downfall of the witch and her minions too, as they perish dashing for the shadows because they’ve lingered into the dawn, the witch reverting to her crone’s appearance and her coffin disintegrating, leaving her exposed as a monstrosity. The sarcastic punch-line for all this sees Khoma’s two friends Khaliava and Gorobets back at the seminary, working on restoring artworks and supping vodka on the sly as they try to work out why Khoma failed in his vigil, eventually deciding he didn’t believe in his own spiritual authority enough to fight off the evil, when a true holy man would have simply commanded the monsters to go. Talk about Monday morning quarter-backing. Viy certainly never exactly goes for pulse-pounding horror, more a spry and mordant frisson that evokes the way you get scared when you’re six years old. It’s a delightful annex of the horror genre nonetheless.