Posted by David Kalat on May 5, 2012
I’ve been in a state of sleep-deprivation-induced delirium for a couple of weeks now, an unending surrealist haze, and so I decided to pay a visit to one of the nutty dream-like movies that most closely approximates this state of mind–the wonderfully structured horror-comedy Viy!
Based on a short story by the legendary Russian satirist Nikolai Gogol, this singular horror masterpiece of 1967 bills itself as an unembellished dramatization of an old Cossack folk tale, but it could easily be hyped with more modern references: Spring Break Madness! Seminarians go wild!
The setting may be some medeival Russian fantasy-scape, but the basic concept of college kids on a break doing stupid things has fueled many a story–this one just happens to have witches and demons in it instead of toga parties, but the idea is to start in the realm of the familiar, and the comic.
The opening reel plays like the setup to a joke: these three theologians get lost in the woods and spend the night at a farm. (And just wait til you hear the punchline to this lunatic joke).
One of them, a sort of medieval frat boy called Khoma Brut, settles in for a night in the barn when the farmer’s wife tries to seduce him. Yup, it’s another classic joke set-up–’ceptin’ for the fact that this particular farmer’s wife is a gnarly old hag (and who is, as far I can tell, played onscreen by a man in drag).
Disgusted, he resists—so she crawls on his back and starts riding him like a horse. Yeah, sure, why not?
When that bizarre activity gives way to her riding him less like a horse and more like, say, a kite, he starts to realize, oh, she’s a witch. In the spirit of “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” Khoma clubs the old crone to death. Only then does he discover that the battered corpse at his feet is actually that of the local aristocrat’s daughter—oops!
Leonid Kuravlyov stars as Khoma. When I started to type his name into the “tags” field of this blog, it autofilled the rest of his name–and for that matter it autofilled the other names involved, too–so I bet I’m not the first person to write about his movie. I didn’t have time to go check to see what else has been posted here about this wonderful gem, but as far as I’m concerned, Kuravlyov looks unsettlingly like Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees, with a loose-limbed goofy charm reminiscent of early Jackie Chan. Kuravlyov’s comic performance and the light-hearted tone of these early scenes can be misleading: co-directors Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov plan on sucker-punching the audience by letting this gentle farce descend into a total nightmare.
Khoma is obliged to sit with the girl’s body for three successive nights, reading scripture to her departing soul. It’s a creepy enough assignment even without his guilty secret, but his problems are only just starting. During the night, he is bedeviled by jaw-dropping visions of terror courtesy special effects maestro Alexander Ptushko.
As dawn breaks and the spooks retreat back into hiding, the bleary-eyed kid realizes that having gotten through the night means he now faces the most horrifying thing of all: one down, two more yet to go.
Up until this point, Khoma has been a pretty dismal ambassador of Christ. The locals deferentially call him “philosopher,” but the guy thinks his theological education is little more than an excuse for whoring and drinking. Asked what he’s learned at the Seminary, and he answers with a pub trick. Now his own soul is at stake and the only defense he has is a Bible he barely knows and a religion he disdains. When the witch brings out her army of ghouls, this isn’t gonna be a fair fight.
And that’s the kicker that sends the movie into overdrive. The suspense comes from Khoma’s (and by extension, our) realization that each successive scare is guaranteed to be more outrageous than the last. And Ptushko does not disappoint.
And the impact was heightened by the silly comic tone of what leads up to it. And it isn’t an abrupt left turn into horror, like Takashi Miike’s Audition–it’s a slow boil that proceeds very logically from light-hearted farce into abject nightmare.
By the final reel, all memories of the silly first part have given way to full-bore horror. The cinematic imagination on display during this awe-inspiring finale is truly shocking. These are images that owe nothing to earlier horror movies, and were never copied by followers–although if you’ve seen Nobuo Nakagawa’s Jigoku from roughly the same period, then maybe you’re prepped. A remake was announced for 2006 (if it ever came to pass I am unaware–perhaps someone in the comments thread knows more?), and indeed the story had earlier been adapted as a silent film, but no one could hope to replicate the delicate and masterful grace with which its makers balanced humor and horror, with each one fueling the other.
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