Oh, Shudder. How I have missed you.
When it comes to horror, you can’t do much better than to spend some time sifting through Shudder’s ever-expanding catalogue of classic, cult, and, yes, even original and exclusive horror films. While I am somewhat discerning about my horror (not a fan of body horror, gross-out, or rape-revenge narratives), Shudder has enough of a spread of films that it’s difficult not to find something appealing or lesser known. Case in point: Viy, touted as the first horror film produced in the Soviet Union, an entertaining amalgam of Russian folklore, horror aesthetics, and Communism.
Viy is an adaptation of a Nikolai Gogol novella about Khoma, a young seminarian who spends the night in a witch’s stable. When the witch attacks him, he winds up killing her, only to discover that he’s actually murdered Pannochka, the daughter of a local landowner. Though his crime isn’t discovered, it’s the girl’s final wish that he be the one to sit with her body for three nights, speaking prayers. As each night passes, the horror gets worse, and the seminarian has to defend himself from evil spirits.
Much of the first two acts are couched as humorous—including the folkloric (and sexual) nature of the witch “riding” the seminarian until the cock crows—and scored practically as a musical. Khoma is long-suffering, mocked by his elders at the church and entrapped into going to Pannochka’s home when they hear of her dying request. A bevy of elderly men surround him, apparently aware that he’s being haunted but more fascinated with what will happen to him than in actually helping him. No one will admit believing him when he tells tales of the witch rising from the coffin, resulting in him getting progressively drunker during the day as he steels himself for his nighttime ordeal. The intermingling of deliberate humor with the mockery of the landed classes and religious orders is clearly Communist and pedantic, but it’s a fantastically entertaining mix.
Viy doesn’t exactly undercut its Communism—the villains are the landed classes, depicted as bloodless and entrenched in the rules that govern their lives. They are, quite literally, vehicles for the devil. The church fares even worse: Khoma and his friends open the film by running riot, drinking, whoring, and eating everything they can get their hands on. It’s Khoma’s unwillingness to confess that he murdered Pannochka that is his undoing—he knows that she’s a witch, but his culpability in her death means that he cannot reveal how she died. He’s visited not by the minions of hell, however, but by minions of Russian folklore. Peasant tradition rises up to try to steal Khoma’s soul, threatening his grasp on reality and on his religion.
Oddly enough, Soviet Russia was actually well-situated for horror films, which are so suited to trading on the combination of tradition, folklore, and class conflict. Viy is reminiscent of an earlier generation of Hammer horror and Roger Corman adaptations, with splashes of bright color, recalcitrant villagers, and humorous side characters to lighten the mood. It’s a weirdly entertaining film, with a climax that would have enthralled Vincent Price. Settle down with Shudder some night and give it a shot.
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