Sunday, July 11, 2010
While not claiming to be an expert in Russian cinema from the late 60's, I know what I think is good and I know what I like. And I like director Georgi Kropachyov's VIY (1967). Taking its name from an old Russian folk tale (and monster who we'll meet later), VIY recounts the actions of a young priest, Khoma, as he embarks on vacation, runs afoul of a witch, and then finds himself in a most mysterious and scary predicament.
At the start of the film, Khoma and two of his fellow seminarian pals set off for a much deserved holiday. As they break off from the rest of the pack, they find themselves lost, ala the scene in AMERICAN WEREWOLF where they veer off the road. They wind up finding a farmhouse and as the old hag that lives there if they can have shelter for the night. She agrees, but on the condition that they are to sleep in separate places. See, she wants Khoma all to herself. After some futile advances (no one could be so drunk, and mind you, Khoma does like his vodka), the crone hypnotizes Khoma into thinking he's a flying horse to satisfy her transportation needs to a village.
Now this is a strange scene. So far, VIY has reminded me most of Disney movies, with its painted backgrounds, goofy vintage cartoon music, and stereotypical costuming. Khoma is portrayed as a bit of a drunk, okay, a lush, really, and he's pretty much revered at Seminary as a total fuck up and loser. It's revealed later that he's an orphan and really has no desire to be learning the ways of the cloth, but eh, what else is he to do? But it's downright comical and whimsical the way it's portrayed. So you think, up until this point, you're watching some quaint Russian folktale, when in fact you're watching a surreal piece of monster mayhem, which is to come.
Anyway, when the witch finally lets Khoma down from the sky, he begins to club her and she turns into a beautiful young raven-haired woman. Our hapless hero flees the scene of the crime and heads back to Seminary, a bit disheveled but no worse for wear considering. But the priest in charge tells Khoma of a rich landowner who's beautiful raven-haired young daughter is about to die and she is asking for Khoma specifically to come pray over her body. Khoma, under orders from above, has no choice but to go, although it's far to obvious the identity of the landowner's daughter.
When Khoma arrives back at the village, the young lady has expired. Khoma tries to convince the landowner he has never met the daughter and doesn't know how she met her fate, but the landowner insists Khoma fulfill his duty and preside over the body for three consecutive nights. He'll be paid handsomely for his troubles, or else...A solemn funeral follows and the girl's body is placed in the church, a creepy affair in its own right, lots of paintings of sad saints and candelabras and cobwebs. Thus begins Khoma's first night alone with the corpse of a witch.
As if the whole thing ain't creepy enough, as soon as Khoma is locked in the church, yes, they locked him in, a barrage of black cats begin scurrying about, seemingly from nowhere. Khoma's obviously nervous, with due cause, and tries to talk himself out of being scared - he has his 'holy words' for protection, of course. He thinks he's just tipsy and imagining all the spooky stuff, and then more cats and candles being snuffed out upon being lit. He begins the prayers or whatever and then our ghoul rises from her coffin, ethereally, beautifully, and begins to blindly grope her way towards poor Khoma.
He sticks to his guns and keeps praying, not for her, but for himself, and draws a 'sacred circle' around him for protection. It's surprisingly effective, given Khoma's lack of faith, and this scene of the first night with a corpse builds tension and has some surprisingly great performances. Ever seen a dead girl mime? Daylight breaks and the girl returns to her coffin, leaving Khoma alive, yet exhausted, but seemingly non-plussed.
The second night arrives and instead of cats, Khomas is greeted by a murder of crows (I love that - how often do you get to say a 'murder of crows'?). He's much drunker this go round but draws his circle right away. The girl's coffin almost immediately begins to rise and band against the circle. Soon enough, she bursts forward from the flying coffin and curses Khoma to hell in a really wonderful sight! It's very cool as the coffin whirls around Khoma and the ghoul girl hurls insults and curses at his very soul. You go, girl. She curses him so badly, in fact, that his hair turns white. Then, daybreak.
Khoma's pretty mad at this point. Could be all the vodka or the torment from beyond the grave, or a little of both, but he wants out and does NOT want to fulfill his contract of three nights. He demands music and does a frantic jig for the amusement of the townspeople. He then tells the landowner his daughter is bewitched by Satan and there's nothing he can do for her. The landowner doesn't give a shit and sends him to spend his third and final night with the ghoul.
And what a night it is! i can't even describe it - so here - watch the video - however, it's in Russian, but it's still pretty damn impressive.
It's pretty much the best payoff ever! Giant claws? Check. Skeletons lanking about on their own? Check. Demons and monsters of ever description? Check. Bats? Check. Succubi? Yep. And then our titular beastie, VIY! Cartoonish in his own right, he has to have the other demons open his eyelids and then, ATTACK! So fucking good!
Oh, daybreak! Why did you have to come so fast? The cock crows and that's the end of the demons. They all scurry away and the girl turns back into a hag and Khoma dies (although it's never proven but we do see him unconscious on the floor of the church). Then everyone back at Seminary says what a great fellow he was and how his life was wasted on nothing. Blah blah, the end, right?
I do have a bit of trouble with Khoma's death. You see, Khoma wasn't all that great. He was a drunkard, he was lazy, and he had no faith. He only hung out in Seminary because he had nowhere else to go. If his lot in life was to deliver the last rites to witch to regain or reclaim his faith, his death doesn't allow him to do so. Was he so far gone, are we to believe, that he was to only live on in legend, as something he wasn't?
A friend of mine recently suffered a brain tumor and had to undergo brain surgery. No little matter, this. Well, some folks I know weren't too fond of her and now that she's had a brush with death, and literally, she did, everyone is sending flowers and cards and talking about how great she was. This is the exact same thing they do to Khoma when he expires. Khoma, although lovable to the viewing audience in some way, due in part to his goofy demeanor and lackidasical attitude toward everything, is kind of despicable. He doesn't even pray over the girl's body - he prays for himself. And she's rightfully pissed. I would be if he clubbed me in the head and then refused to pray over my dead body.
But the heart of the matter is, the witch is taking revenge on Khoma. She's a witch, for gods' sake! Whether or not Khoma is completely deserving of said revenge I guess is up to the viewer. It's hard not to like Khoma, murderer and drunk that he is, but who knows. Maybe I should just take it as a fairy tale and shut the fuck up. Because that's what it essentially is, a piece of Russian folklore passed down through the ages to warn of witches and false believers. And it's pretty entertaining just as that!
Here's another video of the coffin flying around the sacred circle.
Other fun stuff about this legend:
Mario Bava's BLACK SUNDAY is loosely based on the legend of VIY and in Joe Dante's PIRANAH, a camp counselor recounts the legend of VIY as a ghost story.
In other non-fun news: VIY is slated for a freakin' American remake. Bah!