|If you wanted to make a film in the fantastical genres in the Soviet Union, you were best advised to be sensible and make it as a science fiction story. The Russian film industry in those years - and not just the Russians, all over Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain - produced a rather narrow selection of approved topics, but you would get World War II epics, historical war epics, the odd musical and love story as long as there was a Communist element, and those sci-fi efforts. Often depicting a supposedly brighter future under Communism with the Soviets running the universe, some may have been scary in places, but they were not horror.
In fact, there was but one easily-identifiable chiller in that decades-long era, and it was Viy from 1967, and that merely sneaked by the censors because it was a literary adaptation. Nikolai Gogol had penned it a good century or so before, claiming it to be his version of an old folk tale, and in more recent years the Italians had taken a liking to it when in 1960 Mario Bava directed a variation on this under the title Black Sunday. That, of course, has gone on to be enormously significant for the horror genre, its gruesome atmosphere much imitated and it made an international star of Barbara Steele, the British actress who turned into an icon of this style after getting typecast.
While Babs moved on to making The Long Hair of Death and Nightmare Castle, among many others, the Soviets were surveying Black Sunday and not liking what they saw. They had some parochial belief that they would be best at adapting a work from one of their giants of the arts, so directors Konstantin Ershov (who would direct more after this debut, before an untimely death of his own) and Georgiy Kropachyov (best known for his talents as a production designer, he only helmed one more film, and his last credit was designing Hard to Be a God, the 2013 remake) set about creating something more faithful, both to the spirit of Gogol and to their homeland's culture.
So what was it about? Viy told the tale of Khoma Brutus (Leonid Kuravlyov), a theology student or monk of some sort who we meet being very disrespectful to the rector of his establishment of learning. The rest of the film taught him a lesson: not in theology, so much, as knowing his place in the world and not mocking what he did not understand, though in light of how it turned out it was best not to ponder too far on how fitting his punishment had been. Really this was a plot of two halves, the first indicating that there were supernatural forces around when Khoma sleeps in a barn overnight, having some time off from poring over the religious tomes, and is interrupted.
Interrupted by a witch, who promptly climbs onto him and rides him held aloft on his shoulders, to the extent of flying into the twilit skies and over the landscape below. The effects may have been primitive, but this was a neatly managed bit of visual trickery and marked the student out as both a stooge for the otherworldly and about to see his faith severely tested. As in the second half where he was recruited (i.e. ordered) to stand vigil over the body of a recently deceased young woman lying in a coffin in a church, who may or may not be the witch, or possessed by the witch perhaps: what is clear is that once Khoma is in that night time situation, he is in serious trouble.
The vigil in horror movies has not really caught on as some tropes have, you could view it in items like Mr Vampire from Hong Kong, or the self-explanatorily-titled The Vigil, a Jewish American chiller from almost sixty years after Viy, but here it was about the best you would ever see it once it heated up and got its teeth into the premise. The three nights the student endures in his chalk circle escalate with each assault from the witch's allies, a band of demons which terrorise him until they can work out a way of breaching the circle that keeps them out, and though not slick, the imagery the directors conjured was highly freaky. As a depiction of a test of faith, it was more religious than the Soviet authorities may have preferred, but proved hugely popular in the nation starved of a decent horror tradition in its cinema.
Viy has been released by Eureka on a double disc Blu-ray, full of special features, but also a second movie, from 1990 just as the Soviet Union had collapsed and horror movies were finally allowed. It was called A Holy Place (aka Sveto mesto), and it was also based on that Gogol story, though director Djordje Kadijevic expanded on it to bulk up what in the Soviet incarnation had been pretty skimpy. Here the witch was also a young noblewoman who had just died, and she has been seducing all and sundry around the rural location, from her chambermaid to the workers to her father (!) so now she has passed the student priest has been requested to read prayers over her body as it lies in an open coffin for three nights. Although this was a sexed up interpretation, you had to admit Viy was a lot more vital when it came to the imagination, and as a result a lot more entertaining. But that said, it was interesting to compare the two variations.
[Eureka Masters of Cinema's Blu-ray release has these special features:
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]