I’m Sure There’s a Yakov Smirnoff Joke to be Made Here Somewhere — “Viy” (1967)

Directed by Konstantin Yershov, Georgi Kropachyov

Synopsis
Three monks, an orator, a philosopher, and a theologian, get lost in the Ukrainian countryside trekking home from their monastery. They come to a farmhouse. They bang on the gate. An elderly woman (played by a man, I believe) shambles out from inside. “Have mercy on us, my good woman!” the men of faith plead. “It’s unforgivable to let Christian souls perish in the night.” The “old skinflint”, as they rudely refer to her to her face, acquiesces. Her room, she claims, is limited, so the philosopher, Khoma Brutus, is sent to sleep in her cow stalls.

That night, the skinflint creeps in to seduce him, on and around all that aphrodisiacal animal dung. Khoma Brutus refuses. “No, it’s the time of lent.” he laughs. “And not for all the gold in the world would I let you tempt me.” The lonely senior citizen straddles him, riding him into the night like a horse. They lift off the ground — think ET: the Extraterrestrial. “Good Lord, she’s a witch!” Khoma realizes. “Shameless witch! Put me down! Let me be!” he demands. The pair fall crashing back to the earth, at which point the philosopher attacks the enchantress with a stick in a fit of rage. “Oh, you’re killing me.” she whimpers. An expression of disbelief washes over Khoma’s face. The camera zooms out to reveal that his victim is now a beautiful young maiden. She looks to be moments from death. Khoma skedaddles.

Viy 1

Flag Soviet Union IIReturning to his monastery the next morning, Khoma Brutus the brutalizer is met by the sight of a Russian horse-drawn wagon full of mustached old louts. His rector informs him these louts were sent to retrieve him by a big-shot military officer from outside of Kiev whose badly beaten and dying daughter (i.e., the witch he just bludgeoned) has specifically requested his presence. Khoma declines the proposal, but his Rector explains that he has no choice in the matter. Go he shall.

So, the anger management-needing monk is begrudgingly taxied to a small, one-room church off the big-shot’s estate. There, he learns, he’ll be locked inside with the young woman (who passed away in the interim)’s corpse for three consecutive nights, conducting a prayer vigil, as was her final wish. He’ll be given a thousand gold pieces for completing this service, lashed a thousand times if he doesn’t. The Fates have conspired against him, it seems. He cannot escape his destiny.

During Khoma’s first night, the witch surreally sits up from her casket and floats down to the ground. Mesmerized for a moment, then coming to his senses, Khoma draws an impenetrable sacred circle of chalk on the floorboards around himself. Arms outstretched, the witch plods toward him, stopping just short of his outline. Her hands feel around like a mime’s on invisible glass. Khoma looks to have saved himself for the time being, but let’s not forget, this witch has another two nights to figure out how to break his sacred circle and gain revenge. Can she do it? Will Khoma’s faith be enough to protect him?

Review (SPOILERS)
Viy (pronounced “Vee-yah”) is a popular, Russian-language, Soviet era-produced horror movie (by my research, the first Soviet horror movie) based on an equally popular short story of the same name published in 1835 by Nikolai Gogol. The movie starts off with a loose rewording of the first few lines of its source story: “Viy is a colossal creation of the imagination of simple folk. The tale itself is a purely popular legend. And I tell it without change, in all its simplicity, exactly as I heard it told to me.”

The original passage reads thusly: “The ‘Viy’ is a monstrous creation of popular fancy. It is the name which the inhabitants of Little Russia give to the king of the gnomes, whose eyelashes reach to the ground. The following story is a specimen of such folk-lore. I have made no alterations, but reproduce it in the same simple form in which I heard it.”

For the purpose of sounding like a smarty-pants, I looked up and read Gogol’s short story after watching the film, then re-watched the film. They’re nearly identical. Viy is as faithful an adaptation as you’ll come across, retaining almost every key image and scene from its source text, even paraphrasing much of its wording and dialogue, as evidenced above.

Viy 23The text, however, devotes too much of itself to the trivial aspects of its setup, and criminally little describing what should have been a much more vivid and starkly terrifying final few paragraphs. If it boils down to spending your time on just one version, go with the film.

_________________________

The 60s were dominated by cheap exploitation, sexploitation and game changing indie shockers like Psycho and Night of the Living Dead. Viy is none of these things. Viy, instead, is a Gothic fantasy-horror film (categorized by some as a comedy, as well) containing most, if not all, of the usual Gothic conventions — the young, virginal maiden, the supernatural, dual-natured villain (here, dual-natured in the sense that she’s also the maiden), the hero, the comic relief, the religious settings, the looming architecture, it’s all here. For this reason, it feels even older than it is. Ordinarily, this would sound like an insult, but Viy has aged well, like a fine wine or Asian guy. Its biggest selling points are its sense of foreboding and awe-inspiring atmosphere (that reach their crescendo in what can only be described as a visually and musically busy climax), and these two things never go out of style.

Fans of the more refined classics will not only appreciate Viy’s Gothic look and structure, but also its folktale-ish story, and use of timeless, illusionary techniques, such as matte painting (matting hand-painted scenery into the backgrounds of shots), clever editing (the disappearance of objects mid-shot, for example), creature costumes, makeup effects work, puppetry, and, eh, some kind of a stuffed animal cat-thing?

Viy 33The only notable drawback to this otherwise hugely enjoyable witch-turned-ghost story is the mercifully brief manifestation of its title spirit, “the king of the gnomes”, whose goofy Sesame Street-like appearance singlehandedly disarms the entire climax. Whoever designed this thing (its barely described in the text) deserves those one-thousand lashings Khoma was threatened with. On the other hand, it’s not always the destination that matters, ’tis the ride, and Viy is an entertaining magic show of a movie from start to finish.

TRIVIA
•Gogol’s short story also inspired Mario Bava’s less faithful Black Sunday in 1960.
•The story is told as a campfire tale in Gremlins director Joe Dante’s Piranha: “The witch and the demons of the forest scoured every corner of the church, venom dripping from their fangs.” Piranha’s main character recounts. “‘Where is he?’ hissed the witch. The demons peeled the [Viy’s] heavy eyelids back. ‘There he is!'”

The Verdict
YouTube it (the embedded video above will instruct you to follow a link back to YouTube). Very highly recommended!

Recommendations
the Italian version: Black Sunday (1960) TRAILER
the Yugoslavian version: A Holy Place (1990) CLIP
the Korean version: Evil Spirit: Viy (2008) TRAILER
the remake: Viy (2014) TRAILER

Horny House of Horror Butt Rating: Three Butts
Butt Scale 3

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6 Responses to “I’m Sure There’s a Yakov Smirnoff Joke to be Made Here Somewhere — “Viy” (1967)”

  1. Reblogged this on Fringe Void and commented:

    Reblogged from earlier this year. In case you missed my review the first time around, “Viy” is an awesome Russian-language ghost story you may not have seen or even heard of, available right now on YouTube for your Halloween binge watching needs.

    Like

  2. Nice! Been meaning to read the original story. I reviewed the remake over on HorrorTalk.com awhile back. It’s absolutely nuts.

    Like

    • You did?!

      Leaves.

      Returns.

      Wow, that’s embarrassing. Spent, like, 20+ minutes clicking through HorrorTalk reviews searching for “Viy” when I should have been searching for “Forbidden Empire”… Also, clicking your profile should, you know, pull up all your reviews. Tell I.T. to get on that.

      I’m disappointed but not surprised to read the film is a mess. At least the trailer was kinda cool. Ah well. Sounds like they added quite a bit of nonsense to the story for, eeauhhm, whatever reason. I’m guessing the original’s simpler and easier to follow. Oh, and better. Check it out one of these days if you get the time.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I definitely will, yo. Awesome review. And yeah, that’s a good call re: the HT reviews–I’ll ask them.

        What’s new with you, sir? Feels like it’s been ages.

        Like

        • Nothing terribly exciting. I work early mornings — like, grossly early — and have a toddler, so those two things sap me of most of my energy, enthusiasm and low-budget B-shite movie watching time. Which explains why I’m not really here every month like I used to be. You?

          I’ve got some days off coming up including Halloween (!), so back to the topic of movies, anything you can recommend?

          Liked by 1 person

          • Oh man, I understand. Life finds a way, or whatever. This living and working in the future thing (i.e., other side of the international date line) is throwing me off. Haven’t been nearly as active on here as I’d like.

            Hmm, recommendations… Nina Forever is an awesome horror-ish dramedy that is really pretty bitching. That’s all I can conjure just at the second, but I’ll try to think of some others.

            Like

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