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  • Writer's pictureKelly M. Hudson

The Uncanny and Weird Viy!


A young priest from the local seminary is asked by name to pray over the dead body of a local girl for three nights running, before her official burial. Why she asked for this specific priest is unknown, but he is called and must respond. The first night strange things happen, as she rises from her coffin in the midst of the small wooden church where her body resides. She is a young, beautiful woman and she speaks to the priest, who ascertains she must be a witch. He draws a protective magic circle around himself to keep her out. That initial evening she probes his strength and faith, seeking entrance to the circle, and when the sun rises, she returns to her coffin. The priest obviously wants nothing more to do with this weirdness but he is compelled by the villagers and the officials at the seminary. Thus two more nights of growing terror must be survived as the priest is locked in and alone with this malevolent force. Will the priest survive, or will the witch get him?

Viy is billed as the first ever Soviet-made Horror film. It came out in 1967 and is based on the same novella by Nikolai Gogol that Mario Bava used for his first masterpiece, Black Sunday. The two films are similar in that they feature a female antagonist who is very beautiful and yet very deadly, but that’s about all. Bava’s film is all gothic seriousness, while Viy is filled with humor and a sort of whimsical feel, and sticks much closer to the source material. The first half of the film is rather dull, with not much happening. We meet the hapless priest and see how he’s just barely a cut above the common folk, getting drunk and carousing like all the others. But he made a vow and is educated, so when he is pressed into duty, he goes along. The film ratchets up the tension on the first night of the vigil, and from there the movie builds, plying the audience with chills and frights and lots of humor. The second night the witch attacks the priest, she rides her coffin like a flying surfboard, and while it is terrifying to consider, it’s quite amusing in its execution. But that last night…this is where Viy goes from being a historical curiosity to a truly excellent film. The final night of the vigil is an onslaught of wonderful monsters and goblins and witches and all sorts of apparitions. While it’s not very scary, it is amazing, the amount of imagination on display. And yes, it does get creepy in moments, but it’s more a flood of the senses, an overwhelming assault of the strange and uncanny. It is a marvelous ten minutes of mondo-weird cinema.

Given its place in history, Viy could have simply been a curio of the past, something to be watched and remarked upon, with no additional considerations needed. But it really charges forward at the end, giving the viewers what they want and more, the floodgates of imagination thrown open and celebrated. It reminded me a lot of moments in Haxan and other silent films—the use of the camera angles and the in-camera effects and trickery, as well as the stilted movements of the monsters themselves. I can’t recommend this to every lover of Horror, but if you’re into the weird and fantastical, you’ll truly love this. Also available streaming on Shudder.

★★★☆

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