The former Soviet Union, like most of the rest of the developed world, had a thriving film industry. This is not surprising given the size and population of Russia and the other, somewhat less-than-willing member countries that existed behind the Iron Curtain. Of course, the films were, if not 100% state made, state-controlled, with no messages subversive to the Communist Party being allowed out to the public. That meant that many of the films and stories that were popular in the west, never made it, openly, to Russia until after the Soviet Union disbanded. That did not mean they were lacking for stories though; many are just different from ones westerners grew up with. A case in point is Viy.
Viy is the story of a young seminary student named Khoma. When Khoma and a couple of his friends are heading home during leave from the seminary, they stumble across a farm run by an old woman. The woman declares that she has no room for Khoma and his friends, but they persist and finally wear down the old lady’s will. She sends the other two to sleep in the house, but not Khoma. She leads him to the barn and lets him make his bed in the hay.
That night Khoma is awakened by the old woman. It quickly becomes apparent that the old woman is in the mood for a little attention from a healthy young man. Khoma declares that he’d never lay with an old hag and flees. She chases him around the barn and then bewitches him. Angry that he spurned her advances, she climbs on his shoulders and makes him gallop around the farm with her riding him. She makes him run faster and faster until suddenly they are flying. It is when he leaves the ground that Khoma truly understands that he’s fallen into the hands of a witch.
The witch flies high and far with Khoma. He is at first terrified, but then his own arrogance begins to come through and he becomes certain that they are only flying because of his faith in God. As he arrogantly prays, he begins struggling with the witch and forces her to land. When they do, he begins mercilessly beating her. He finally stops when she declares she is dying. He gets off of her and is astonished to see that she has turned into a beautiful young woman as she died.
Khoma returns to the seminary, determined to put the incident behind him. He is not back for long when emissaries from a wealthy landowner arrive. They tell the head of the seminary that their master’s daughter has taken deathly ill and will soon die. They have been sent to fetch Khoma because the young woman has requested that only he can say her last rights and that he must spend three nights praying for her soul. The landowner’s request is accompanied with a healthy contribution for the seminary so the head priest agrees and orders Khoma to go and tend to the dying woman.
Khoma does not want to go. He’s lazy and wishes to stay at the seminary. However, the head priest insists and sends the young man off with the landowner’s retainers. During the long trip, Khoma tries to escape many times. But the landowner’s men are onto him and he is never able to getaway.
When they arrive they are too late. The young daughter of the landowner has died. Khoma assumes he can leave, but the wealthy man forbids it. He insists that Khoma fulfill his daughter’s dying wish - that Khoma would say prayers for her soul next to her body for three nights from sunset until the crow calls.
Khoma is arrogant and defiant, but he cannot escape. He finally agrees, not out of his duty as a seminary student or man of God, but because the landowner offers him gold. Khoma enters the crypt with the young woman’s body and is sealed in so he won’t ‘wander off’ in the night.
Khoma lights many candles. He begins reading the word of God, but is flippant about it, adding in his own arrogant passages and then doing pinches of snuff. He soon regrets his arrogance as the body of the young woman comes back to life. Khoma knows she is possessed by Satan and quickly draws a circle of protection around himself and the podium. She attacks him repeatedly all night long but cannot break the circle’s power.
This was only the first of three nights and Khoma’s faith is not what it should be. Will the young seminary student prove to be a true man of God, or will he fall victim to the woman’s foul magic?
Viy is an interesting story. Based on an old Ukrainian folk tale, the film is supposedly the first true horror movie made in the Soviet Union. It is a fascinating movie to watch as it shows a richness and vibrance to the country and settings that one does not associate with Communist Russia. It is well-acted and the special effects, while dated, are very good and in some cases terrifyingly realistic.
The scenes where the dead woman attacks Khoma behind his magic circle are particularly well done. They manage to look frighteningly realistic despite the simplistic special effects and camera techniques used to achieve the imagery. Khoma’s reactions to the attacks, though somewhat exaggerated also lend credibility to the scenes. Particularly worth noting are the events of Khoma’s third, and final, night of prayer. Without giving away the ending, know that this is the point when many more demons are summoned by the dead woman, including the ultimate evil: Viy!
So if you’re in the mood for a trip behind the iron curtain to see how the Soviets do old school horror, then check out Viy. But remember, in Soviet cinema the really scary part is the concession stand; vodka and potatoes just aren’t the same as buttered popcorn and a Coke!