The 1960s were a wild time for Western Civilization, to say the least. Like our present moment, it was a time of cultural upheaval that nearly resulted in civilizational suicide, only for the Silent Majority to rise from its slumber to forestall decline.
Apparently, the 1960s were a bit wild for the Soviets, too, as the Russkies allowed the release of Viy (1967), a Soviet-era horror flick, the first of its kinds to enjoy an official release in the USSR. Shudder is currently streaming the film, and it’s worth your time to check it out, both for the novelty of watching a Soviet horror flick, but also because it’s a fun, surprisingly frightening film.
Viy opens with three broke seminary students stumbling home from Kiev to start their summer break. As night falls, the group find a remote country farm, and implore with the owner—and old crone—to stay for the night. She insists that each student lodge in separate parts of the farm.
One of those students, Khoma Brutus, settles down for a night in the barn, when the old crone enters, advancing on him with what appears to be lustful intent. He laughs off of her advances, but she climbs on his back and—in a goofy sequence—rides Khoma across the countryside.
Khoma realizes she is a witch, and begins invoking Christ’s Name. This causes the ride—which had turned into a flight—to stop, and Khoma proceeds to beat the witch to death. The deed done, the old crone turns into a beautiful young Russian noblewoman.
In the confusion, Khoma returns to the seminary, only to find that he has been summoned to a nobleman’s home to pray over his dying daughter. Khoma refuses initially, but the patriarch of the seminary threatens a proper beating if Khoma doesn’t go along with the noblemen’s men. They all pile into a roomy, if dilapidated, wagon, and set off for the master’s house.
When they arrive, the girl has already died. The nobleman promises Khoma great wealth if he will prayer over his daughter’s body for three nights—and threatens a beating (and worse) if Khoma refuses.
Facing the potential for great wealth, Khoma agrees, and the nobleman’s men lock him in the chapel with the daughter’s body. Khoma begins his prayers, but sometime in the night sneezes. This awakes the daughter from her death-sleep, and she begins to grope around blindly for Khoma. He hastily draws a chalk circle around himself and his lectern, and prays fervently to Jesus (and his magic circle) to protect him. The rooster crows, and the daughter returns to her slumber.
Khoma repeats this process the second night, this time with the daughter’s coffin rising from its bier, smashing hopelessly against the invisible barrier of Khoma’s magic chalk circle. As the dawn rises and the cock crows, the daughter places a curse on Khoma, meant to blind him and turn his hair white. The blinding curse is unsuccessful, but Khoma’s hair is grey.
For some reason, Khoma insists on music as soon as he gets out of the chapel that morning (I guess defending yourself against a witch’s corpse all night gets a man hankering for entertainment), and he dances goofily in the Cossack style. His hat falls off during the dance, and the people of the village are shocked to see his blond hair turned grey.
At this point, Khoma refuses to spend another night in the chapel, and even attempts to flee, but the nobleman’s men find him, and the nobleman offers him even more money. Khoma continues to tell himself that “a Cossack fears nothing,” and he heads in for his final night.
The last night is, of course, the wildest, and when the movie really starts to shine. Up until this point, it’s a bizarre look at a Soviet film from the 1960s. In essence, it’s a goofy B-movie, in the vein of a Hammer Studios film, but even lower quality. There’s also a lot of character actions and dialogue that probably make perfect sense to Russians (the film takes place in Russia in the early nineteenth century, but the characters’ clothing and lifestyles seem even more medieval; that’s appropriate, given how far Russia lagged behind Europe technologically and culturally), but which are unusual to Western viewers. The brutality threatened in the film—Khoma being offered beatings if he doesn’t complete a task, for example—has a very Russian feel to it.
But I digress: the last night is creepy. The witch calls up Viy, a large, bulky god with short arms and long eyelids, which he demands be lifted for him. All sorts of ghosts and demons and skeletons come crawling out of the walls of the chapel. One of the skeletons is literally a science classroom skeleton with some blacklight paint applied, which is hilarious and charming.
The demons—people painted in dark blues and purples, and scuttling out from the boards in the wall of the chapel—are frightening due to their weird movements. There are some goofy vampire bats on strings—a very Hammer touch—and Viy himself. The Viy costume/puppet—I’m not sure which it is—is grotesquely fascinating, which his humorously short arms and stocky body (he’s almost like a purple rectangle), and his strange, long eyelids. His eyes are a fluorescent green, and apparently the source of his dark powers.
Anyway, once Viy hits the scene, Khoma’s fascination with seeing the beast gets the better of him, and despite his instinct not to look, he does so out of curiosity. That breaks the power of his magic circle, and the collected crew of things that go bump in the night descend upon Khoma, apparently killing him.
The film ends with Khoma’s two seminary friends discussing what it was that led to Khoma’s death, suggesting it was a lack of faith, or that he didn’t pray hard enough.
As I noted, the film is really goofy, and in parts is kind of incomprehensible—like when the witch is riding Khoma—but it starts to make sense once you look into the source material. Viy is based on a story of the same name by Nikolai Gogol, who claimed that the inspiration for the story derives from actual Russian and Eastern European folklore. There is apparently not much evidence to support Gogol’s claim, and scholars tend to agree that the titular creature is an original creation.
Regardless, Viy the creature is quite fascinating, especially with his weird, long eyelids. There is a theme in the film of the power of sight: the witch attempts to blind Khoma; Khoma has to look at Viy; Viy’s power derives from his scary eyes.
Beyond that, I’m not sure what to make of the film, other than I enjoyed it for its quaint quality, and for the sheer novelty of it. The practical effects were quite good, and even the cheesy ones (the science classroom skeleton, for example) possess their own charm. The witch, too, is quite scary, with her icy beauty. The English dubbing over the Russian actors actually adds to the eerie quality of the film, too: the words not quite syncing up with the actors’ mouths gives an added layer of weirdness and asymmetry to the flick.
The idea of Khoma’s faith protecting him from the witch is another interesting theme, though it seems that it is the magic circle that protects him from her attacks. When Khoma looks at Viy, there is an element of the story of Lot’s wife: he longing for her old home caused her to be turned into a pillar of salt. Khoma knows he should trust God and not look at the creature, but his scholarly desire for knowledge (he is called “philosopher” throughout the film) gets the better of him in the end, resulting in his (assumed) death.
Regardless, I recommend you check it out. It’s a fun little movie, and while it’s a slow burn at the start and a bit baffling at times, it’s an interesting look at how Soviet filmmakers in the 1960s portrayed rural czarist Russia (technically, The Ukraine).