Viy Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 0 release of Viy, a wonderfully full-blooded supernatural horror film that makes an auspicious start to the Russian Cinema Council’s hugely ambitious project to release 120 classic Russian films on DVD.

Based on a short story by the great 19th-century Russian writer Nikolai Gogol (better known for Diary of a Madman, The Government Inspector and Dead Souls) which was also the source material for Mario Bava’s legendary Black Sunday, Viy is a wonderfully vivid supernatural horror film boasting some superbly realised set-pieces and special effects.

It all starts when hapless hero Khoma Brutus (Leonid Kuralev) gets lost one night and ends up taking advantage of the hospitality of a strange old woman – who, to no-one’s surprise but Khoma’s, turns out to harbour a whole raft of sinister secrets. Fleeing her clutches by beating her half to death, he returns to the seminary at which he is a student, where his guilt-ridden reveries are interrupted by a summons – he has been personally singled out to carry out the singularly unattractive task of spending three nights in a church with the corpse of the daughter of a local dignitary, in order to guard her spirit from evil by performing various holy rituals. And as if this wasn’t unnerving enough, there’s something awfully familiar about her face…

At this point, the film turns into a succession of supernatural set-pieces of increasing elaboration and scope, as cats scurry across the floor, corpses and coffins take on a sinister life of their own, and a full-scale demonic sabbath erupts, leading to the invocation of the giant demon Viy, who makes his entrance against a backdrop of one of the finest collections of ghoulies, ghosties and long-leggity beasties I’ve seen in a very long time.

These scenes are unquestionably the film’s high points (the last two sequences in particular are genuinely hair-raising), but there’s a lot of fun to be had in the linking scenes, where an increasingly rattled Khoma has to make an unenviable choice between staying in the church or making a run for it – the latter earning him a thousand lashes, described in lip-smacking detail by the young woman’s father. At times the Russian writer who most sprang to mind isn’t so much Gogol as Dostoyevsky, as Khoma turns to religion in earnest (having largely trivialised his studies thus far) in an attempt both to assuage his guilt and come up with a coherent explanation for what’s happening to him.

The film is superbly staged throughout – I particularly liked the way it segued almost seamlessly from scrupulous realism to hyperstylised Expressionism as Khoma becomes more and more deranged by lack of sleep, vodka, guilt and fear (note the way the colour literally drains out of the image towards the end). Script, performances, art direction, cinematography and special effects (which are hugely impressive, and not just for the period) are beautifully in sync, and I also liked Karen Khatchaturian’s Bartók-meets-Herrmann score, all screeching and chittering strings and doom-haunted brass. Even better, it runs an admirably tight 72 minutes and doesn’t waste a single one.

This was the first Ruscico disc I watched, and given that I’d just committed myself to buying 120 of the things, I was more than mildly nervous – would this be a Madacy-style cheapo rush job, an outstanding Criterion-style restoration, or something in between?

Thankfully, the answer is closer to (b) than the other options – it’s far from perfect, but its virtues more than outweigh the vices. The source print is in astonishingly good condition considering both the film’s age and the poor reputation of Soviet colour processes – there are a few spots and scratches, but absolutely no more than I’d be prepared to forgive on a film far more recent, and while the colours have faded slightly and the picture is somewhat grainy, this actually helps the overall period feel (and may of course have been a deliberate effect). There are also occasional colour shifts, though again these are clearly down to th e original materials.

As for the transfer, at its best it’s quite superb – a lovely, sharp, clear picture that at its best more than gives a Criterion restoration a run for its money: rich, vibrant colours (reds are particularly effective), accurate black levels and plenty of shadow detail. Unfortunately, though, the picture tends to freeze on static backgrounds and digital artefacting becomes very noticeable when the fog starts to roll in. There are also a couple of sequences – Khoma’s meal after the second night, for instance – where both print and transfer are noticeably inferior for no especially obvious reason.

None of this is a major handicap – indeed, it’s probably far more noticeable on the large 43” screen used for this review than it would be on a more typical setup, and towards the end the film moves so fast that it’s unlikely you’ll notice many flaws – but given that the print is so good it’s a pity that Ruscico didn’t go the whole hog and give it a transfer that did it full justice. Incidentally, it’s framed at the original 4:3, so the fact that it’s non-anamorphic is not a problem.

The sound is far more successful. Although I’m normally suspicious of Dolby Digital 5.1 remixes from mono originals, in practice this doesn’t put a foot wrong – in fact, much of the time the original mono track is retained, but when the film’s major set-pieces get going, so too do the other speakers, with birds fluttering around all the speakers and the subwoofer making a memorably resonant contribution to the coffin being used as a supernatural battering ram, or the footsteps of Viy when he finally puts in an appearance. Recording quality is also very acceptable – not up to contemporary standards, but the dynamic range is surprisingly wide and the sound is crystal clear: the music comes across particularly well.

Russian, English and French dubs are offered – I watched the original Russian for the purposes of the review, and dipped into the English one afterwards: it’s not that bad, but I can’t see too many preferring it unless they really can’t stand subtitles. The latter, incidentally, are excellent – clear electronic text in well-written, idiomatic English. I can’t judge the translation, and it’s a pity the songs aren’t subtitled, but this is minor nit-picking.

The transfer of the film is impressive enough, but Ruscico have gone much further with this DVD, offering a superbly rounded package that offers plenty of supporting material in textual, photographic and documentary form, including three genuinely fascinating examples of early Russian silent horror films.

The menus are outstanding, setting the tone beautifully as animated bats fly out of and around a distinctively Russian-looking church that appears to be reflected in swaying cobwebs, with further menus featuring various moving apparitions from the film, my favourite being the chapter selection menu, where clutching hands straight out of Night of the Living Dead appear to be reaching for the animated video clips. (Incidentally, twenty chapter stops is more than generous enough for a relatively brief film). Menus are available in three languages: Russian, English and French, though aside from the language they all appear to offer the same options.

The extras menu is subdivided into four – ‘Ruscico’, ‘Coming Soon’, ‘Original Trailer’ and ‘Gogol’ – which contain the following:

‘Ruscico’ offers a one-minute trailer for the entire collection (silent clips from numerous Russian films set to music), an archive containing a stills gallery offering twenty images both from the film (in colour) and behind the scenes (in black and white) as well as some poster artwork that differs sharply from that used on the DVD cover, plus filmographies for the three lead actors plus the directors, writer, cinematographers and composer (the one for Alexander Ptushko, apparently the main creative force behind the film, also offers trailers for Ilya Muromets and The Tale of Tsar Saltan, the former of which looks particularly entertaining – and is a future Ruscico DVD release), plus a section called ‘Museum’ containing three extracts from horror films dating from the pre-revolutionary silent era. All three are in the original 4:3 and are accompanied solely by the sound of a whirring projector (in stereo), to create that authentic silent movie feel.

The Portrait (8 min extract) dates from 1915, and is one of the screen’s earliest Gogol adaptations. It’s credited to one “V Starevich”, who may well be the same man who under the names Wladyslaw Starewicz and Ladislas Starevitch went on to pretty much define the art of stop-motion animation both in Russia and France. There’s none of that here, though, and only one real special effect (one startlingly similar to that in the Japanese horror film Ring, made nearly a century later), but this excerpt is a striking example of how to create and maintain a surprising amount of tension (using just one camera position and a very simple idea – a man buys a somewhat creepy-looking portrait of what could easily be Rasputin’s elder brother, only to discover that it does rather more than just follow you around the room with its eyes. The print is in surprisingly reasonable condition – quite a few age-related spots, scratches and occasional tramlines, but it’s in much the best condition of the three silent films on this DVD.

The Queen of Spades (16 mins) is based on Pushkin’s poem (Tchaikovsky turned this material into an opera only a few decades earlier), and was directed in 1916 by Yakov Protazanov and starring Ivan Mozzhukin (better known in the west as Ivan Mosjoukine) as a man haunted by supernatural visitations, recalling both the actual and symbolic image (via the card of the title) of a woman whose death he may have been responsible for. The print is in appalling condition – every frame is riddled with spots, scratches, tramlines and chemical blotches – but the basic narrative comes across well enough.

Satan Exultant (20 mins) is excerpted from a feature film from 1917, again directed by Yakov Protazanov and starring Ivan Mozzhukin as a devoutly religious man who makes the great mistake of taking in a stranger on a dark and stormy night who – wouldn’t you just know it? – happens to be the earthly reincarnation of Satan, who proceeds to turn the household upside down: physically, socially, morally. The print is in very good condition for its age, but is marred by excessive contrast.

Great though it is to have this stuff at all, it’s a pity that there’s little context-setting material behind basic credits – I’d have loved more detailed background information, especially as we’re thrust into the middle of the narrative without so much as a by-your-leave.

‘Coming Soon’ contains three trailers for forthcoming Ruscico releases: Grigori Kozintsev’s marvellous Hamlet, the decidedly Creature From The Black Lagoon-ish Amphibian Man and the sci-fi film Professor Dowell’s Testament (or Professor’s Dowell Testament or even Pofessor Dowell’s Testament, depending on which screen you’re watching – a rare lapse in quality control). All three trailers come with introductory programme notes giving a brief outline of the films.

Then there’s the original 1967 trailer for Viy, with a stentorian English voice-over (the Russian and French menus offer versions in those languages, but without subtitles). The technical quality of this is excellent, both in terms of print and transfer quality – not far short of that of the main feature, in fact.

Finally there’s a section on Nikolai Gogol, kicking off with a three-page text biography accompanied by an extensive bibliography that also cites noteworthy film adaptations of his work, together with an 18-minute Russian-language documentary. This presumably dates from 1939 (it refers to the 130th anniversary of his birth at the start) and is clearly aimed at an audience rather more clued-up on 19th-century Russian literature (and music) than a modern English-speaking audience is likely to be.

Still, it never outstays its welcome, I learned a fair bit (especially about the historical and geographical context), and I loved the charmingly dated feel, not to mention the assumption that we’ll all feel stirred by shots of the Gogol Collective Farm (“The socialist fields cover the land!”). It’s in black-and-white 4:3, with the transfer being adequate rather than outstanding (there are signs of over-compression in the form of artefacting and occasional picture freezes), though this isn’t a particularly big deal given the nature of the material. Incidentally, it comes with subtitles in English, French or Russian.

So far so terrific, but my major nit-pick with this disc, as I hinted above, is the lack of context-setting material relating to the films themselves. Given that part of the Ruscico project is to show non-Russians the range and variety of Russian cinema beyond what we’ve been used to in the past (the sheer range of language options makes the company’s territorial ambitions all too clear), it seems strange that the only textual support comes in the form of filmographies – which aren’t especially useful to Western audiences since they won’t have seen or heard of the overwhelming majority of the films, and almost certainly won’t get the opportunity any time soon.

This DVD contains four Russian horror films – but there’s no attempt to link them or to explain where they fit into the Russian horror tradition, or indeed say whether there’s such a tradition at all. We aren’t told if Viy is typical or exceptional, or how it’s regarded by Russian audiences and critics. Screenwriter/SFX wizard Alexander Ptushko is clearly an important figure in Russian cinema – his name pops up frequently in the Ruscico catalogue, often as the major creative force – yet we are told nothing concrete about him: even a brief biography along the lines of the Gogol one would have paid dividends (that said, Ruscico’s DVD of The Tale of Tsar Saltan contains a 30-minute documentary on Ptushko). And all this is deeply frustrating, because while it’s all too easy to be blasé about production notes and biographies on Western films, they’re actually very useful indeed if you know next to nothing about either the films or the social, cultural and historical context.

Despite my quibbles, though, this is generally a very good start to what I hope will be a series to treasure – it’s clear that this is a real labour of love from all concerned. The extras amount to much the same running time as the main feature in terms of video material, the silent shorts are a real eye-opener, and the transfer of Viy itself is very acceptable – quite apart from it being a sensationally entertaining film that gives American and European horror films from the same era a pretty comprehensive run for their money. Fingers crossed there are similar gems lurking in the hitherto unexplored depths of Ruscico’s catalogue – and if we find any more, we’ll let you know!

Michael Brooke

Updated: Sep 21, 2001

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