Written by Aleksandr Ptushko, Konstantin Yershov, and Georgi Kropachyov
Directed by Konstantin Yershov & Georgi Kropachyov
There was a recent clip going around from an interview with George Lucas where he talked about the difference between the American film system he came up with in the Soviet analog. Lucas’ remarks expressed his frustration with the film industry as a whole is centered on making profits rather than allowing artists to make art. He explains that he is forced to only make a particular type of movie if he wants to continue having access to the resources needed to make them. Conversations with Soviet directors in the 1980s caused him to realize they had more creative freedom than in the United States. While making films critical of the Soviet government was forbidden, Lucas says he felt more penned in by Commercialism restraining him.
I tend to agree with Lucas, as my personal perspective is that movies of all varieties should be shown in theaters everywhere. It’s a loss when the latest Marvel has seventy showings in a day of a single mega-movie, squeezing out smaller pictures that could have been given a screen and done well. I don’t think you can argue that there isn’t enough escapist entertainment available to the American public; I think the argument is that there is too much. Mainstream film & television refuses to reflect the economic reality of the people with homelessness, seemingly wholly eliminated in these movie worlds, or homeless people are presented as comedy relief/plot points. It can be an enlightening experience to see films from another culture, especially something as closed off to us for so long as the Soviet movie industry.
Viy begins with a class of seminary students in medieval Russia excited to go on a vacation home. Khoma and his friends ask an old woman if they can spend the night in her barn on their long on-foot journey. She agrees but slips into the barn later to seduce Khoma. He rejects her advances which is when she reveals she’s a witch. The old woman casts a spell on the man and literally rides him like a broom across the countryside. When they finally land, he beats her horribly, only for the witch to suddenly become a young woman. Khoma runs back to the monastery, where the rector is already going to send for him. A local merchant has a daughter who has fallen ill, and Khoma needs to go pray over her. He’s led back to the same farm he just left and realizes this daughter is the same witch woman he just attacked. Eventually, Khoma gets locked in the chapel overnight with the woman’s body, and things truly get wild.
What left me the most stunned by Viy was how silly it was. This is the definition of a horror-comedy and looks like something that strongly influenced Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, and The Coen Brothers’ later work. I have no idea if they saw this movie, but if not, then it is a genuine act of coincidence that the cinematography is so similar. From the opening scene, Viy has a powerful sense of momentum, and it’s clear a lot of thought has gone into the shot composition. The novel by Nicholas Gogol also inspired Mario Bava’s Black Sunday in 1960. There are definite similarities, but this story is entirely different in narrative structure and comedic tone. Black Sunday is Gothic horror with slight camp, while Viy is a madcap comedy-horror.
The special effects are also a stand-out and are truly pushing what was possible for the period. The filmmakers have commented on how they cut some sequences because the demands of the SFX team were just way too much for what they could have in 1968. There isn’t a push to make the effect realistic; the film’s stylization is fully embraced so that we know this is heightened reality. However, that doesn’t diminish how impressive it all is. The directors threw so much at the audience in just a 77-minute runtime that I felt the urge to give a standing ovation when the end credits rolled. This is a horror movie made by people who genuinely love the genre and want to take advantage of this opportunity. Everything culminates in an outlandishly wild finale with the witch flying around in her coffin, a horde of nasties appearing that she’s summoned up, and our protagonist completely losing his cool.
As this caps off our look at 1960s Horror films, I have to say it ends on a great note. The genre during this decade wasn’t where it would eventually be in the next, but the seeds were being planted vigorously. Horror is splintering into a variety of subgenres with Gothic horror from Bava, more psychological with Robert Wise in The Haunting, and the comedy-horror of something like Viy. Horror is a highly robust genre and remains so today. In a time of great uncertainty, as we’re living in right now, horror is a way to come face to face with unnameable evils as a means to examine them more closely, distract ourselves for a bit from our stresses, and even find a way to laugh in the presence of terror. But we’re not done celebrating Halloween yet on PopCult. Keep an eye out for our next podcast episode (reviewing the recently concluded Halloween trilogy & sharing book recs) and our series on the Scream films beginning Monday.