Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Sveto Mesto – review

Director: Djordje Kadijevic

Release Date: 1990

Contains spoilers

Sveto Mesto or a Holy Place is a flick I’ve had for a while but it was friend of the blog House of Karnstein who recently let me know that subtitles had appeared for the film. It is based on Gogol’s short story Viy and owes much, in some respects, to the wonderful 1967 film Viy.

For those who don’t know, the story had a definitive edge of vampirism to it. The films concentrate more on the witch aspects of the story. However we get psychic vampirism and what we see is the strigoï vii (or living witch/vampire) who becomes the strigoï mort (undead vampire) on death. I did a ‘Vamp or Not?’ on the 1967 film and all films based on the story – if accurate to that model – will be reviewed even if the vampirism is low key/well hidden. Note that this is going to be a spoiler heavy look at Sveto Mesto.

Dragan Jovanovic as Toma
The film begins with three students walking down a road, looking for a cabin. They are lost and can hear wolves. As two forge ahead, Toma (Dragan Jovanovic), holds back. He sees a carriage coming down the road, apparently, at first, driverless he sees that there is a woman (Branka Pujic) inside. Toma chases after it and eventually meets his friends. He wonders how they were not killed by the hurtling carriage and they wonder what he has been drinking – they saw no carriage.

Toma is Hag-Ridden
They reach a dilapidated shack and ask for shelter, explaining that they are student priests. The old woman within eventually allows them to stay but splits them up – Toma gets a shed. After seeing the empty carriage nearby, he has led down for the night when the old lady comes in. He thinks that she is after sex, a notion he quickly refuses given her age, and indeed finds himself thinking that again when she leaps, screeching, onto him. Until, that is, she grabs his mouth and hag-rides him. To be hag-ridden, attacked by a witch who uses you a steed, was thought the source of nightmares, sleep paralysis and a form of psychic vampirism.

witch's transformation
Toma starts reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the holy words break her hold on him. They fall to the floor and he starts violently beating the witch. Suddenly he stops; she has transformed into a young woman – the woman from the carriage. She kisses him tenderly and he kisses her back, his kisses becoming more passionate and then, suddenly she appears dead. He runs and, by the morning, he is back at the seminary.

He is called to the headmaster, and bumps into his friends who laugh at him suggesting that he slept with the granny and then ran off – but he must have been good as she made them breakfast in the morning. The headmaster tells him that he has been summoned by Master Zupanski (Aleksandar Bercek) as his daughter is dying and Toma is to pray for her. Zupanski is a patron of the church and school and thus Toma has no choice. He is handed to Doros (Danilo Lazovic) and Spira (Rados Bajic), who are to take him to Zupanski – despite his protests.

Katerina placed in the church
When they arrive Katarina, Zupanski’s daughter, has died and Toma recognises her as the girl the witch became. This of course means that he is her killer, though no-one else is aware of that. Toma is to sit in the church for three nights praying for the girl as that was her request – she asked for Toma by name. It is round here that the film takes a slightly different route (rather than direction) to the 1967 Viy and in some ways it is closer to the original story.

body awakens
The first night sees Toma alone in the church. He approaches the coffin and is looking at the girl when her eyes open. Falling back he draws a circle into the thick dust of the floor and the girl leaves her coffin. She circles him, walking the perimeter but not crossing the invisible barrier he has created. In the morning she is back in her coffin.

the cat with glowing eyes
During the day – over the next two days – the locals tell stories of Katerina, of how she broke the dog trainer, Nikita (Predrag Miletic) so that he is a shell of a man and they openly refer to her as a witch. They do not, however, relate a story like the one in the Gogol original, which had her drinking blood. There is a story, however, of a cat with glowing eyes going to the maid Lenka (Maja Sabljic) and her stabbing its paw with scissors – Katarina having a wounded hand the next day. This is a little lycanthropy-esque as well as witchy but also we must remember that Carmilla would transform into a cat and thus the cat has a definite place in vampire mythology also.

Katerina goes for Toma
There is something odd with regards the family. Not only does Katarina faint as she approaches the church (in one of the stories about her) but the father has had a nude painting of her commissioned (now unfinished). This gives a hint of incest and, incest, traditionally, might be a trigger for vampirism. The mother is dead and we get some snippets – the portrait of her is deliberately lingered on by the camera and later it is blank and the father sees his dead wife stood nearby. The peasants suggest that the mother wanders the fields howling like a wolf. This is not elaborated on further, though we do hear a wolf howling at night as well as in association with the ciarrage.

rude awakening
The point where I became somewhat disappointed with the film was within the ending. In the story (and the ’67 flick) the strigoï mort calls down all sorts of spirits and monsters on the third night of vigil. Not so in this. The girl marches upon Toma who falls into her empty coffin and then she kicks the living Hell out of his man bits. He passes out and awakens, as the funeral party enter the church, in the coffin with her corpse draped over him. The father assumes necrophilia and he is pulled from the church and killed. It just seemed, whilst it worked, much too mundane.

However the film does not end there and there is an entire coda section that brought the film full circle and which I won’t spoil but can say I rather enjoyed.

The film’s photography is odd. I rather enjoyed the look and feel of the film, but there is a thickness to it that makes one feel like you are watching a 1970s production rather than 1990s. It is, overall, a good production of Viy (other than the mundane climax).

All in all I want to hold this, score wise, at 7.5 out of 10. Well worth tracking down and watching but it suffers when held next to the 1967 movie, which is much more magical.

The imdb page is here.


Zahir Blue said...

Almost seems like a Russian DRACULA, at least in terms of its many incarnations/interpretations. Almost.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Yes, there are a few versions - but nothing on Dracula... perhaps more a Russian Carmilla ;)

House of Karnstein said...

Nice review, Taliesin, and I think your score is spot-on at a 7.5 out of 10 (which is a darn fine score). If only it could have had those great special effects that VIY had, it could have been a little cult masterpiece. However, I do think SVETO MESTO is creepier/eerier than the VIY. Some of the horse-n-carriage shots were worthy of Bava/Margheriti, and I like how the carriage itself took on an evil persona. That Hag-riding is a fascinating bit of Salvic folklore 'eh, and while the special effects of the "ride" were done much better in the VIY (really taking flight), the same scene seemed more intense and frightening in SVETO MESTO (that jaw-pulling had me cringing!). I look forward to reading Leptirica in the future. You really have a great blog here, Taliesin, you should be proud mate! :)

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Cheers HofK... it is creepier, I think I'd agree with that, but Viy is magical.

Agree iro the carriage and yes the hag-riding was more intense but pre-cursored as we'll explore when my Leptirica review goes online.