Admonished to stay out of trouble on their way home for the summer from their studies at Kiev Seminary, theologian Khaliava, orator Gorobetz and youthful philosopher Brutus find themselves lost in the dark and seek shelter in the hovel of an old woman who grudgingly takes them in but insists they must sleep in separate spaces. Alone in the barn save for the chickens and cows, Khoma Brutus is assaulted by the old woman who places a harness on him and rides him through the skies before they fall to earth.
Beating the witch to death, the shocked Brutus flees back to the school where he is told that he has been requested by name to perform a vigil for the daughter of a landowner, reading prayers over her body for three nights before her funeral; confused, as he has no connection with the family, Brutus has no choice but to attend, but each of the three nights he is plagued by the risen corpse which taunts and attacks him with increasing ferocity.
First published in 1935, Nikolai Gogol’s collection of short stories Mirgorod (Миргород) was named for the Ukrainian town of his youth, among them Viy (Вий), or Spirit of Evil, supposedly inspired by folk tales of that region, adapted multiple times in various forms, though it is the 1967 version directed by Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov which leads Eureka’s Masters of Cinema release.
Regarded as the first, if not the only, Soviet era film to specifically present supernatural horror, Viy offers an escalating phantasmagoria of nocturnal assault which terrifies Khoma Brutus (Leonid Kuravlyov), turning his hair white, at the hands of the beautiful Pannochka (Natalya Varley) before she summons the demonic Viy the deformed “chief of the gnomes,” a creature of mud and malevolence accompanied by vampires and werewolves.
The early scenes presented almost as comedic, played broadly without subtlety or subtext, Russia a simple and humble place of obedient serfs, the tone changes markedly from the arrival at the Sotnik estate, the massed candles unable to keep the gloom at bay in the church of black stained wood populated by crows and prayer insufficient to protect Brutus as he cowers behind a chalk circle, the inventive mechanics of the three visitations both visually and cost effective.
The main feature supported by an informative commentary by film historian Michael Brooke, he discusses the circumstances of the production, the wider links with the Russian film industry and other works inspired by Gogol’s original work, some direct adaptations carrying the name but others more thematic such as Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (La maschera del demonio) of 1960.
The disc including fragments of Russian silent films The Portrait, The Queen of Spades and Satan Exultant, there is also an archive film on Gogol’s life and work which veers towards propaganda, a new documentary on the “endlessly malleable and uniquely strange source material” of Viy and an interview with Djordje Kadijevic, director of A Holy Place (Sveto mesto), a 1990 Yugoslavian adaptation of Viy which is included in its entirety on a bonus disc.
Far from being of secondary interest, A Holy Place is a vastly different interpretation but recognisably the same, an assured period costume drama, even handed and with less stylised performances, expanding the story and characters who are never portrayed as fools, offering eeriness rather than outrageous manifestations of evil, a film which sits comfortably on the continuum bridging Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre and Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula.