Monday, January 19, 2015

Viy (2014) – review

Director: Oleg Stepchenko

Release date: 2014

Contains spoilers

I am a fan of the story Viy. The original short by Gogol has been filmed several times. Black Sunday is allegedly based on the story but the connection is very loose indeed. That said the film is definitely a vampire movie. The 1967 adaptation, Viy, eschews much of the vampiric aspect from the story but does include hagriding – a traditional form of psychic vampirism. It also has the central witch animate after death reminiscent of the Strigoï vii and mort. It would be remise not to mention Sveto Mesto, a fine adaptation in its own right.

fairytale feel
This version was actually slated for release in 2009 (along with another adaptation that seems to have been lost at the moment) to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Gogol’s birth. It unfortunately seemed to vanish itself but I kept a weather eye out for it. Recently I discovered it had been released on Russian DVD – but without other language subtitles. Then I discovered it had also been released in Thailand. The Thai DVD has either English or Thai audio and subs – the English audio being partially dubbed as the film was produced in Russian and English.

caught in bed
Why partly in English? Because the film adds much to Gogol’s basic story and the film starts in England in 1701, where the Lord Dadli (Charles Dance, Underworld Awakening & Dracula Untold) is storming through his house accompanied by a group of servants. He approaches a certain room with stealth, so as to not to alert the occupants – his daughter (Anna Churina) who is in bed with Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). Green makes a run for it whilst professing his love. He is a cartographer and will make his fortune, he suggests. He gets to his coach – a steampunk like coach drawn by horses but controlled from inside the cab and complete with road measuring wheel at the back.

sitting vigil
Cutting across Europe, we hear a voiceover tell us about the eyes of Viy, an eternal God. In a beautifully realised fairytale landscape we see maidens put wreaths with lighted candles into a lake, Tradition says if a man picks up a wreath he and the girl are destined to be together. Nastusya (Agnia Ditkovskite) walks from the lake calling for her friend Pannochka (Olga Zaytseva). Pannochka is lying deathlike in the water when she grabs her friend who falls in herself. Nastusya is saved by some half unseen beast like shape with seven horns. Pannochka’s father, Sotnik (Yuriy Tsurilo), comes to his daughter who dies in his arms but first says that a seminary student, Khoma (Aleksey Petrukhin), must read the three nights of prayer above her.

after the third night
Khoma is brought to Sotnik who offers him 1000 gold coins to perform the vigil. We see him taken to the church and become locked in but the next scene is actually the third night of vigil. He is singing prayers when he notices the coffin is empty. Flowers seem to fly and he draws a chalk circle around himself. The flowers seem to be caught in a vortex, flying around the circle and around the great crucifix. A spectral creature lunges towards Khoma. The scene is over in a flash and then we see the village priest, Otets Paisiy (Andrey Smolyakov), given Khoma’s fee to deliver. We see him above Khoma’s body, having dropped the coins, crying that the church is cursed. He has two Cossack brothers board the church up (though they steal the coins first) and one loses an eye after a fall from the roof when he tries to board-up a hole.

the seminary students
At this point I was a tad disappointed. Khoma’s story seemed to have been greatly curtailed – don’t worry though, his encounter with the hag and the first two nights of vigil are relayed later on in flashback. As Jonathan makes his way over Europe, sending letters back to his love, he has no idea she is pregnant. I was unsure about these cut scenes to his lover – they added little to the film. With supplies low, Jonathan picks up two seminary students, Gorobets (Anatoliy Gushchin) and Khalyava (Ivan Mokhovikov). They tell him how they and Khoma stayed at the watermill of the village and Khoma vanished.

This leads us to them being allowed to stay by the old woman who lives in the mill and her sexual overtones towards Khoma. We actually see that her silhouette is that of a young woman… with a tail. She jumps on Khoma’s back and rides him through the night sky – in a reflection he sees that her face is that of Pannochka. This hadridding is the only overtly vampiric aspect to the film, the blood drinking that comes into the original story is lost and the Strigoï vii and mort like aspect is deliberately blurred (in a way that is too spoiler heavy to explain). It is telling that the stories round the hagridding and the first two nights are third hand, as Khoma is dead (or missing, according to his friends) - could they possibly be true?

Viy with eyelids lifted
The film plays with a theme of superstition and science but deliberately blurs the lines. The villagers are treated to a sign consisting of demonic visions but it is apparently the product of magic lantern technology (not too much is done with this, unfortunately). The English scientist is driven to the village when cadaverous wolves with glowing eyes that seem to be able to vanish into smoke chase him down. He uncovers a very earthly conspiracy but is driven to do so after visions where he sees Cossacks becme demons and then meets Viy himself. Viy is well done visually but the death that comes from his eyes (if his heavy, long eyelids are lifted) is reserved for the sinner and he is portrayed almost as a benevolent nature God who is pushing for justice.

groping blindly
The imagery through the film does work well. The first two nights of vigil are particularly well done. One has Pannochka blind, groping for Khoma as demonic roots and vines engulf the church interior. The second has a flying coffin that bleeds when struck with a hatchet. The story, however, is partially stifled by the new additions. I got the feeling of screenplay changes altering direction and leaving little reminders of previous drafts that were superfluous. That’s not to say that the story is bad (after all, the Gogol story is still central) and the changes that were made to the primary characters worked well enough – but it could have done with cleaning up.

The dubbing was somewhat annoying – but unavoidable if I was going to see the film. Hopefully an original dialogue version with English subs will become available at some point. I liked the fact that the seminary students looked as though they had walked out of the 1967 version and I did enjoy the film (not as much as some other versions, but nevertheless). 6.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


Unknown said...

I am just watching this and I like it, too. 18th century Ukraina is interesting setting, and despite all the CGI overkill, photography and scenery are often surprisingly striking.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hey Kirsi, glad you are liking it. It doesn't beat the '67 version but it is worthwhile and, as you say, is very visually striking in places.

Unknown said...

Agreed. 1967 version is beautifully photographed classic. I like La maschera del demonio, too, but it´s not really an adaptation.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

yes, I love La maschera del demonio but not really Viy :)