Film: Viy (Vij; Spirit of Evil)
Format: Internet video on laptop.
Horror is very much what you make of it. What scares me may well not scare you and vice versa. For instance, I watched The Exorcist as a part of this countdown, and found that it didn’t do much for me in the “boo” department. Real-world terrors tend to be the things that cause me to lay awake at night or sleep with the lights on, and I don’t believe in demonic possession, mainly because I don’t believe in demons. So let’s see if a Russian horror movie from the year of my birth can do much, shall we?
The film in question is Viy, also known as Vij, or Spirit of Evil. The plot is one of deceptive simplicity. A young seminary student named Khoma Brutus (Leonid Kuravlyov) has been asked to preside over the wake of a young woman in a remote village. It should be a pretty simple assignment. However, he soon discovers that the woman is no ordinary young lady. She is a witch, and an emissary from Hell itself. Armed only with his faith, he must survive three nights of torment at the hands of her spirit and anything else she can conjure up if he is to put her to rest.
See, deceptively simple. The tale is a traditional Ukrainian folktale (evidently) and written by Nikolai Gogol. Based on what I have seen and read, the film is pretty close to the original tale, or at least the tale as written by Gogol.
There is a strange quality to this film; it has a made-for-television feel to it, in part because it was made with almost no budget. In many cases, this would be cause for alarm, laughter, or at least MST3K-style merriment. But here, it comes off as sort of charming. Khoma’s initial encounter with a witch is silly taken on its face, and there’s certainly at least a little humor intended there. But in its own way, it’s fun. It’s very early Doctor Who, but in Russian.
While there’s certainly plenty of weirdness in the start of the film, tings don’t really get strange until the second half, when Khoma begins his three-night vigil at the side of the body and, as we would expect from a film of this type, the body sits up. This is surprisingly effective, really. While not scary except for those who are easily terrified, it is decidedly disturbing. Khoma keeps himself safe by drawing a chalk circle around himself, which effectively keeps the witch (Nikolai Kutuzov) unable to approach him too closely. This is where the film really starts to sing.
Another aspect of this film that gets it right is the character of Khoma. It is pretty well established that the only thing that Khoma has to protect him from the very real danger that his soul is in and the very real temptation from the witch is his faith. Faith is something that he has. But he is also a weak man in many ways, and a man with a number of vices that leave him all the more vulnerable to the temptations that are presented to him. This weakness and predilection for sin is what leaves his fate in doubt for the entire film.
This is very much a strange film, one that might take a little while to really understand fully. It’s also a film for which the viewer needs to give a certain level of willing suspension disbelief since many of the effects are no-budget rudimentary. Some of it is surprisingly good, and some of the costuming is excellent, while some is ludicrously silly and amateurish. The costume of the title demon, for instance, is almost children’s television show silly. And yet, our witch is disturbing and sort of terrible in the original sense.
It’s a hard film to figure, really. It has a particular charm to it, a sort of horror film made for children to give them nightmares. It still might, if the children are very young or very impressionable.
EDIT: I want to be clear on this, considering I've said that this horror movie has goofy effects and is sort of silly at times. If you look this up on NetFlix, it classifies the film as horror. IMDB, however, calls it a comedy. The effects are laughable at times (again, particularly the title demon), but this is no comedy. However, I see how that impression could be left.
Why to watch Viy: A folktale from another culture respectfully told.
Why not to watch: It’s hard at times to get past the silly.