Updated: Mar 10, 2020
Review by: Jessica
Synopsis: A group of seminary students from the city go on summer break, drunkenly wandering the countryside. They end up lost and spend a night in the company of a haggard witch. A scuffle breaks out, and one of the students, Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov), murders the witch. Only it turns out he really killed a landowner's beautiful daughter (Natalya Varley), and now he must sit with her body in a church for three days, protecting it from evil spirits.
Viy, also known as Spirit of Evil, is a 1967 Russian horror film produced by Mosfilm, one of the largest and oldest film studios in the Russian Federation and Europe. It was the first horror film to ever be released in the USSR during the Soviet era. The film has received mixed reviews over the years for not being scary with ineffective tension-building scenes but has been praised for its use of special effects and vivid/colourful production design. Despite it’s critical reviews, Viy was listed in the film reference book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, as a must see film.
I stumbled upon this hidden gem when I was researching witch related horror films to watch and review. I was definitely intrigued by it and then it appeared on Shudder Canada a few weeks later! Viy was based on the horror novella of the same name written by a Ukrainian writer, Nikolai Gogol in 1835. The story and reveal of the demonic entity, Viy, is considered a combination of Gogol’s imaginations and various Slavic traditions displaying his romantic sensibility with strains of surrealism and the grotesque. The novella has been adapted to film four times since its publication and would go on to inspire Mario Bava’s gothic horror Black Sunday.
From the storyline and cinematography to the visual and early special effects, I really enjoyed Viy. One of my favourite scenes was the end of the film when the witch summons demons, winged monsters and the demonic entity Viy into the church to attack the philosopher Khoma, who was responsible for her murder. The combination of the music, lighting, the demons, and the sheer terror on Khoma’s face makes it a wonderful scene to witness and I really appreciated the practical effects and costuming that went into creating such a surreal scene in the 1960s. It is my not so secret guilty pleasure to watch international horror films from the 1950s and 60s. I enjoy them because what is being portrayed on the screen is centuries of history and culture impacting the storytelling and set designs and Viy is no different.
This brings me to talk about the depiction of the witch in Viy, as it is interesting, to say the least. We first meet her as a nameless old woman who allows three young seminary students to stay in her home. She is a weathered aged woman and is representative of the negative stereotype of witches being ugly old hags (also known as the Crone). When she uses a spell on Khoma to make him fly as she rides him across the land, he realizes he is in the clutches of a witch and begins to recite exorcism prayers to be released from her power. When they land, he beats her until she transforms into a beautiful, but dying young woman, and then he flees.
In Ukrainian lore, witches were either portrayed as old hags or beautiful young women who were either born a witch or became one from joining a coven or being in congress with devils. Witches were feared in the Ukraine but there were no large scale persecutions against them led by the church out of sheer lack of interest, unlike other regions in medieval Europe. If anything, peasants would use their own spells and rituals to safeguard themselves against the power of witches, and we see this when Khoma uses a “chur” or magical circle that acts as a boundary that evil cannot cross.
It is interesting because while Khoma, the villagers, and even the woman’s father (The Merchant) fear that she is a witch, no actions are done to harm her. If anything, the father and the villagers want to ensure that her dying wishes are respected, completely unaware that the man she asked to have speak prayers over her dead body for three nights is the man who mortally wounded her. Unless, they are aware that he was the cause and that by ensuring he does what she requested, they are protecting their land and village from the horrible vengeance of the witch. It would explain the strange and insistent behaviour of the villagers and The Merchant. Each time Khoma leaves the church, having experienced a new horror, he wants to leave and even tries to run away. However, the Merchant and his men threaten Khoma with the pain of a 1000 lashings or entice him with a reward in 1000 gold pieces if he completes the task.
The witch in her maiden form is beautiful if not vampiric. At one point when Khoma enters the church for the first night of the vigil, it is shown that she sheds a single tear of blood onto her pale skin, which is something vampires are known to do in vampiric lore. As it becomes night, the witch rises from her casket to torment Khoma and returns to it at the sound of the cock crowing at dawn. This was very reminiscent of how Count Orlock is defeated in Nosferatu. As part of Slavic superstitions, she has become a member of the “midnight dead” because of her status as a witch. These were people who were considered evil in life who now crawl out of their graves at night to do the bidding of the Devil by tormenting the living. They are now the “living dead” but unlike zombies they can only exist in the cover of darkness, much like vampires.
However, I can’t help but see the film Viy in another light, that the witch was really an innocent woman who fell victim to the rash impulses of a young entitled man. Khoma is a seminary student and one of the rowdy ones at that. He steals food, plays pranks, drinks heavily and uses his privilege to weasel his way into the witch’s home because he refused to sleep on the road. When she tries to enact payment from him for her hospitality he insults and attacks her, and when she changes into the young woman, he leaves her for dead refusing to help her.
On each night of the prayer vigil, he shows up drunk, disrespectful to the corpse and his prayers have nothing to do with the salvation of her soul but that of his. Khoma is selfish: he doesn’t admit to his crime and continues the charade that he is a man of God and a victim of circumstance. The witch is then able to have justice for her murder by playing on his fears and allowing them to overcome him, ultimately causing his death.
Gogol was known for writing about beautiful women and often portrayed them as evil and what better way to do this than by associating them with the image of the witch. However, I feel this early film adaptation shows another story. I don’t see an evil witch hexing a man for no apparent reason, but a woman enacting judgement upon a religious hypocrite who felt that his life had more value than her own because he subscribed to an ignorant belief. This is a “witch” taking back her power and not allowing the man who assaulted her to go unpunished.
If you are interested in depictions of witches in the cinema, I would recommend giving Viy a watch. The storyline, while sad, is quite beautiful and a wonderful way to be introduced to 19th century Slavic traditions. I had a really hard time liking the character of Khoma and feeling sympathy for his death, but that goes to show just how well the acting was. There are also some scenes of drunken surreal images and ranting that proves to be entertaining. However, I will warn you, it is slow at points but the visual imagery is worth it.