Вий

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Вий (“Viy or Spirit of Evil”)

Director: Alexandr Ptushko

Mosfilm, 1967.

This adaptation of Nikolay Gogol’s mystic tale, dubbed “the only horror film made in the USSR,” may not impress, let alone scare the experienced American viewer. Yet it is well-worth watching for the jokes, folklore, and as an inspiration to read Gogol’s earlier work.

The quality of the film reflects the haphazard production process. The idea to adapt Gogol’s mystic story belonged to Ivan Pyr’ev – director of the Moscow film studio. Initially, it was made in Ukraine and was directed by the students of the Higher Directing Classes of the Union of Cinematographers of the USSR Georgii Kropachev and Konstantin Yershov. Yet their Mosfilm superiors found the scenes “too realistic” and eventually the film was produced into what we see by Aleksandr Ptushko – the author of many fairy-tale films.

The plot is simple. Seminarian Khoma Brut is returning home for holidays, when he and his friends stop at a distant tavern for the night. The owner of the tavern turns out to be a witch and in a struggle to free himself from her charms Khoma beats her to death. Yet his trial is not over. Back at the seminary, he is called on to read a service, so that the witch, embodied in a beautiful Pannochka, could go to heaven after death.  For three nights, Brut reads scripture over Pannochka doing his best to keep his eyes on the text and off the flying coffins, walking skeletons, and murder of crows.

Natalia Varley plays the dead witch Pannochka and Leonid Kuravlyov plays the seminarian Khoma Brut. Both are renowned Soviet actors, famous by their appearance in the Leonid Gaidai comedies “Kidnapping Caucasian Style” and “Ivan Vasilievich – Back to the Future.” Their acting compensates for the inconsistencies in the plot, and while the 1967 special effects might seem archaic in our days of developed technology, Pannochka’s tricks still hold attraction in their naiveté and sincere desire to scare.

So, for 60 minutes of your time, “Viy” is well-worth watching to learn a few Ukrainian words, get a taste of Gogol and the Slavic rites of conferring with the dead. Who knows, may be one day you might use this to protect yourselves from the spirit of evil witches…

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