Christian’s Cinematic Syntax: Review of Viy (1967)

Viy (1967), directed by Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov, is considered by many as the first and only USSR horror film. It was based on the horror novella “The Viy,” written by Nicholai Gogol in 1836. Gogol, the renowned Russian writer of Ukrainian origin, is most famous for the short stories The Overcoat (1842) and The Nose (1835-36) and the novel he called a “novel in verse” entitled Dead Souls (1842). Interestingly, Gogol is known as one of the first authors to use grotesque and surrealist imagery in his works. With this, the filmmakers of the 1967 film adaptation, produced by Mosfilm, really made sure that the surreal and grotesque were emphasized throughout. In Viy, these moments are some of the most memorable. They are intricately woven into the ordinary through the way we follow Khoma Brutus (Leonid Kuravlyov), who is often referred to as “Philosopher,” in his initially joyous vacation to the countryside. Although some critics argue that the special effects of Viy are outdated, there is something unique about the uncanny effects. The special effects of Viy are far from perfect, with the technological limits, budget, and other constraints as possible factors working against the filmmakers; however, there seems to be an instilling of  horror through the imperfect practical effects that create an inner turmoil and unsettling atmosphere in Viy.

Despite the surreal mode of filmmaking, Leonid Juravlyov has a realistic acting style. His portrayal of Khoma Brutus is disheveled and egotistical. The repeated chant or mantra he chooses, “A Cossack is never afraid of anything,” seems to be a coping mechanism and a phrase to show off his machismo publicly. The obvious contradiction is that Khoma Brutus the seminarian is a murderer. In addition to being a contradiction to his teachings, the murder itself further illustrates the psychology and blindness of rage, ideology, beliefs, all wrapped in one. Khoma Brutus jarringly meshes right back into his monastery after the murder as though nothing happened: the only indication is a tear in his robes. This character’s psychology, the skeletons in his closet, and what happens in the chapel compared to his public outbursts are what make this film an intriguing watch. There is a reluctance in Khoma to fulfill his duty, but he always puts on a fictitious performance for influence. Khoma repents for his sins. The father forces him to read prayers in the chapel, and the promise of one thousand gold pieces versus one thousand lashes if he refuses, all display this repentance. Pannochka (Natalya Varley), the daughter of the merchant who dies as Brutus travels to her, called for him because he beat her senseless thinking she was a witch. The dance sequence following the second night spent in the chapel illustrates his internal battles and coping mechanisms perfectly. Khoma’s dance articulates an attempt to fight back against his fears, further accentuated by his consumption of vodka as a fear suppressor.

The attention to detail, and the anticipation of the Khoma’s third night spent in the chapel, very much propel this film. The third night delivers what the audience anticipates, and it ascends as the most memorable night. For this sequence, the filmmakers eloquently provide a 360 degree rotation around Khoma as he grips holy texts and the podium in his sacred circle. One of the more arresting moments of the film is when the frame’s background is a ghoulish green, while hands, similar to a scene in Polanski’s Repulsion (1960), stretch from the walls. In terms of inner turmoil and what we keep hidden from the outside world, this sequence brings these concepts full circle. Furthermore, the constant candle lighting to protect himself is just one of the idiosyncrasies Brutus reveals through his stays in the chapel. The film culminates in an ending that makes us wonder about what even happened to Khoma Brutus. In the end, two seminarians question reality while they paint a church wall further exploring fact versus fiction in folk tales. The first seminarian talks about not believing that Brutus died in the chapel, calling into question if what we saw was reality.

The directors’ ability to capture Brutus and his relation to the village and the monastery is particularly apt. The way Brutus interacts with the old woman who reveals herself to be a witch (played by the male actor Nikolay Kutuzov) with a sense of entitlement, gives us a glimpse into his world. We feel a sense of justice as the old woman, revealed as a witch, traps him in the barn and foreshadows events in the chapel. There are many scenes that transition from the ordinary to the strange in seconds. For example, the film’s travel sequences, like the overcrowded cart that brought Brutus to the merchant’s village, create a sense of verisimilitude as well as a sinister quality. These sequences are unlike the surrealism that invades the frame through the practical effects the filmmakers employ. When Brutus arrives to help the merchant, the villagers, stylized and melodramatic in the background, are presented as though they were right out of traditional folktales. Their acting seems true to how folktales often unfold, with this displayed through their animated cries over the death of the merchant’s daughter. Early on, the special effects are composed through superimposition. To create surrealistic imagery, the filmmakers chose to have two particular moments of superimposition: Brutus and the old witch mid-flight, and when three versions of the same character open three different doors. Khoma Brutus stands layered over the frame as the drunkard character opens doors, which is another structurally interesting way the filmmakers align the audience with his character. As mentioned earlier, the three nights spent in the chapel are some of the most dreamlike in the film. The normality of life is never entirely settled in this film— even in the end.

Viy arises from his slumber

The sense of entrapment lingers through Khoma’s predicament. His desperation to escape is overshadowed by the village guards and the father merchant’s orders for Brutus to recite prayers for his daughter— the daughter Brutus killed. Brutus’ sacred circle illustrates his efforts of protection against evil forces. Although trapped in this predicament, he uses his seminary teachings to protect himself until the end. The filmmakers’ special effects utilized particularly well with the merchant’s beautiful young daughter, Pannochka (as Natalya Varley), who comes back to life as a witch, are riveting. During the second night spent in the chapel, an airborne coffin is piloted by the daughter. She tries to break through the invisible barrier of the sacred circle to get to Khoma. She fails this advance and swiftly reverses back into the original position. The coffin’s thuds, along with the manner in which the camera allows slight portions of it in the frame, help maintain the continuity of this scene. For the third night, the use of live animals, in this case, cats, runs through the frame. When the monsters of the night, and Viy, are revealed, the costuming is on full display. Even though the costumes and posture of these monsters may be slightly silly-looking, the overt display of oddity and imperfection is what we have been looking for. The gradual gestures of surrealism give way to the monstrous for a climactic final night.

For fans of folklore stories with practical and special effects that are visually compelling, Viy is for you. It can be described as a Soviet Hausu (1977) without the playful, comedic, and child-like tone. It is less overt than Hausu but similarly has memorable practical effects. What may be a product of the fantastic writing of the short story or screenplay, the film allows us to inhabit the peculiar perspective of Khoma Brutus. Brutus, is both unreliable and impenetrable, and shows a contradictory side to human nature. The film’s pacing can often feel peculiar, such as with the transition between murder and monastery, but the flourishes of surrealism are the glue that holds everything together. The speed at which each night in the chapel ends with a rooster’s clarion call helps keep the viewer protected but anticipates the terror and shock of the next night. Although attacked by some critics at the time of its release, the special effects create a unique atmosphere for the film. The surreal moments never feel heavy-handed because of this atmospheric, gradual build-up. The way the film blends the ordinary and grotesque, the public and private, makes it recommended viewing. The monastery and the lookalike seminary students are portrayed realistically, even if the fantastical often bleeds in. Though there is some verisimilitude, it builds up to absolute horror and special effects. Viy is not only a horror film, it is a thought-provoking display of practical effects and Russian culture that is unconventional and worth checking out. 

— Christian Mietus, Blog Editor.

Christian’s Bio:

Christian is a Senior at Lewis University who is an English major and a minor in Film Studies and Russian Language and Culture. In 2019, he received the “Dr. Stephany Schlachter Excellence in Undergraduate Scholarship Award” for his collaborative piece “Assimilation through Sound.”  In his free time, he appreciates and dissects cinema as well as consistently rating and reviewing it. Some of his favorite directors are Andrei Tarkovsky, John Cassavetes, Ingmar Bergman, and Kenji Mizoguchi. He also appreciates different art forms, such as music and literature. Christian hopes to continue expanding his skills as a writer and to encourage others to do so as well. He writes about film for the JFR blog, so check out Christian’s Cinematic Syntax.

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