Why “Viy” (1967) Is Criminally Underrated

I initially planned to write a straight-up review of Viy, in the same way I wrote my review of the recent It remake, but I thought about it more deeply and realised that I had more opinions about it than I could pack into a review. A lot of my thoughts on it are not strictly related to the quality of the filmmaking or the narrative techniques – they have much more to do with the atmosphere and the film’s cultural value. Thus, instead of a review, this is more of an opinion piece: an analysis of why I found this film (occasionally) scary but mostly rather endearing.

Spoilers are in yellow parentheses [like this]. The font colour has been changed, but you can highlight it with your cursor if you would like to read the spoiler.

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Natalya Varley and Leonid Kuravlyov in Viy (1967)

Viy (transliterated from the original Russian Вий) was produced by Mosfilm, a film studio still thriving today which produced more than 3,000 films over the course of the Soviet Union’s existence. Adapted from a short story by Nikolai Gogol, it was officially the first horror film to be released in the former USSR. Despite its cultural significance, hardly anyone in the West – besides hardcore horror fans and academics of Soviet culture & history – seem to have heard of it, let alone seen it. It’s such a shame, because Viy rarely receives recognition for managing to be funny, surreal, philosophical and even genuinely unsettling. The barriers that prevent Viy from claiming its title as a classic are myriad: English-speaking viewers don’t seem to be fans, by and large, of having to read subtitles, the surrealism can be baffling if you’re not willing to suspend your disbelief for 80 minutes, the special effects sometimes look dated (although not often) and there’s quite a lot to get your head around culturally. I don’t think you need to be an expert on Russian/Ukrainian folklore or the Eastern Orthodox Church (I’m not) for it to make sense, but you definitely need to pay attention.

So what’s the story? The protagonist is Khoma Brutus, a student at a seminary – a school specifically for theologians and future clergymen – who gets into an altercation with an old witch during his school holidays. Upon fleeing back to school, he discovers he has been summoned to a small Cossack village to preside over the funeral rites of their princess (or princess-equivalent), who asked for him by name on her deathbed. The rites require Khoma to spend three nights alone in the church with her body, reading Scripture to help her pass on to Heaven. As it turns out, she doesn’t plan to go quietly [spoiler alert: the witch he got into a scrap with has taken the form of the pretty young princess and she rises from her coffin each night attempting to violently curse him]. Khoma is forced to use his wits and his faith to protect himself from the demonic forces that begin to encroach upon the church.

Visually, the film is stunning. The special effects are mostly very simple, with lots of practical effects and costumes, which lends the film a timeless quality. I’ve mentioned before that I am exhausted by the saturation of CGI in modern cinema, so Viy is a bit of a treat for a grumpy CGI naysayer like me. The sets, especially the church (I’m obsessed with the church), are beautiful too. In one of the earlier scenes, Khoma and his two friends are looking for somewhere to stay and are wandering over the gloomy fields. There’s a thick mist hovering over the land, reminiscent of the older adaptations of The Hound of the Baskervilles. That’s the closest equivalent in my own mind – it has that “dark night on the moors” vibe.

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Leonid Kuravlyov as Khoma in Viy (1967)

“But is this Soviet film from 50 years ago actually scary?”, I hear you ask. And my answer is: kind of?

It builds up tension very well, but then it often drags and doesn’t seem to know what to do with the suspense it’s built. I can forgive the people who found it “boring” or gave up on it after about 20 minutes. Furthermore, most of the horror is concentrated in the latter half of the film; Khoma doesn’t actually end up in the church alone with the corpse until almost 40 minutes have passed. There are also some unintentionally hilarious scenes – I don’t think the scene in which Khoma is ambushed by the old hag is supposed to be as funny as it is [although the tone abruptly changes when he starts beating her to death]. I found the humour in the film charming, even if it’s sometimes difficult to work out whether the comedy is intentional or not. I still haven’t decided whether the audience are meant to laugh at Khoma belting a few notes in response to the owls hooting in the distance (but, damn, has the boy got pipes!).

However, there are a couple of scenes which are legitimately chilling. When Khoma’s first night keeping watch over the body begins, there’s no music – all we hear are his own footsteps. It’s eerily quiet and claustrophobic. Khoma is locked in and in the immediate vicinity of a cadaver, so you very much feel that you’re locked in there with him. There are some good jumpscares too; I’m normally anti-jumpscares, but at the time, they were an innovation. [Black cats burst out of nowhere and run across the church floorboards, birds descend from the rafters, a gust of wind blows out the candles he has just lit, and it all adds to the atmosphere.] The resurrected princess is creepy as well. With her long black hair, wide eyes and deathly-pale skin, she’d fit right in with Samara from The Ring and Kayako from The Grudge. There’s a really interesting contrast in that she’s crowned with flowers and is outwardly very pretty, but she’s also screaming curses [and eventually summons a powerful demon to enact her revenge].

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The princess rises from her coffin, Viy (1967)

I think I used the word “endearing” to describe the film earlier and I’m sticking with that description. I found myself feeling quite affectionate towards it by the end. I really like Khoma and Leonid Kuravlyov’s portrayal of him is one of the most charming parts of this film – he’s initially cowardly and quite pathetic, begging not to be forced to conduct the rites, but he pulls himself together. He makes a fine tragic hero. There’s something childish about him and it’s engaging to watch him mature. Most importantly: he’s just an ordinary man. He spends as much time drinking with the local Cossacks as he does fighting demons. He complains about not being able to smoke his pipe in church (he resolves to just use snuff instead). He doesn’t have any supernatural powers and he isn’t on a mission from God; he’s simply a man doing the best he can with the resources he has.

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Khoma sees the body, Viy (1967)

I’m fond of Viy, despite all its flaws – its odd acting choices, its occasional musical outbursts (why does Khoma have to keep singing???), even its glaring tonal shifts. It deserves more hype than it gets. On an academic level, it’s a fascinating peek both into Slavic folklore and into the style of popular films in the USSR in the 1960s. On a personal level, it’s a well-crafted horror film with thoughtful subtext and plenty of philosophy.

Oh, Viy. You’re wonderful, and you deserve better.

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The princess cries blood, Viy (1967)

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Wolves On Film: A Visual History Of The Cinematic Werewolf

Warning: this article contains some gory images, as well as potential spoilers for the films discussed.

It’s no secret: I love werewolf films. It might seem like a strange niche of the horror genre to be particularly interested in, but films about werewolves deal with the human psyche in a very specific, primal way. Unsurprisingly, the concept of a human turning into an animal – or some beastly hybrid – opens up fascinating discussions about human nature. How civilised are we? How successfully can we override our basic instincts? And what would it take to tip us over the edge into animalistic brutality?

Alongside the psychological aspect, I always look forward to seeing how each individual film chooses to interpret the werewolf and why. I can forgive a lot of narrative failings if the werewolf of the film is distinctive in the way it’s depicted. There’s no real chronology in terms of how werewolves are shown on screen, although I would argue you’re more likely to see a CGI werewolf in the 21st century than in the 20th (for obvious reasons). In a way, I find that disappointing – I’m a sucker for the costumes of horror’s yesteryear and I’d much rather see a valiant attempt at an interesting werewolf costume than a CGI construction. I don’t hate CGI by any means, but I’m always pleasantly surprised when a horror film doesn’t take that route.

Early cinematic werewolves were much more human-like, primarily due to the technical constraints of the time. The very first Hollywood film to feature a werewolf was Universal Pictures’ Werewolf of London (1935). This was followed by their much more successful – and now iconic – The Wolf Man (1941), starring Lon Chaney Jr.

By today’s standards, the make-up FX naturally seem simplistic, but the visual effects used in The Wolf Man were deliberately more complex than in Werewolf of London, taking up to six hours to apply. Both these werewolves place on the more human end of the spectrum and are easily recognised as 1930s – 1940s designs. As the genre evolved, filmmakers took more creative liberties with werewolf anatomy, but I’m quite fond of both of these. I don’t necessarily find them scary; however, I think the genre owes a lot to them.

The 1980s saw a boom in the werewolf genre with the release of An American Werewolf In London (1981), The Howling (1981) and its slew of sequels, The Company of Wolves (1984) and somewhat lesser-known offerings like Silver Bullet (1985). It’s important to note the more tongue-in-cheek werewolf films of this period too, such as Full Moon High (1981) and Teen Wolf (1985). An American Werewolf In London shares something with both of these – the portrayal of the werewolf as a sympathetic protagonist, a slave to the curse who we are encouraged to pity. However, where the werewolves of Full Moon High and Teen Wolf have more in common with the werewolf designs of the early Universal Pictures films, the titular American werewolf is definitely more wolfish. There’s barely a trace of David left by the time the transformation is complete.

The Company of Wolves – one of my favourite films – is also firmly planted in the “wolf” camp. Although there are plenty of in-between scenes, at the end of the transformation there is no difference between the human-turned-wolf and an ordinary wolf (they admittedly used Belgian Shepherd dogs for most of the filming). This is deliberate; it lends itself to the fairy tale environment that the film cultivates and blurs the line between the “real” world we see at the start of the film and the “dream” world within which most of the action takes place. Then you have the beasts who sit somewhere in the middle. In Silver Bullet, the adaptation of the novella Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King, Reverend Lowe’s werewolf form is bipedal but nowhere near as human as in The Wolf Man. The design is more reminiscent of a bear for me, but you can judge it yourself. The werewolf of Silver Bullet is also portrayed fairly sympathetically – we never find out the origins of Reverend Lowe’s curse in the film, but there’s a particularly good “nightmare” scene in which we see how troubled he is by it.

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Reverend Lowe’s werewolf form, Silver Bullet (1985)

The Howling also favours the bipedal, “upright” werewolf. I’ll be honest – of all the werewolves analysed in this article, this is the interpretation I find creepiest. I think the transformation is gruesome and the werewolves themselves are freaky-looking in a way none of the others are. You might disagree, but something about the way they’re designed unsettles me and I can never quite put my finger on what it is.

The werewolves of The Howling could be distant cousins of those depicted in Dog Soldiers (2002). The Dog Soldiers werewolves are probably my favourites in all of cinema, because they’re just such an interesting visual choice. They’re quick, tall and seemingly quite slender, but they have tremendous brute strength. We don’t see a lot of them until towards the climax of the film – throughout the majority of the runtime, we see brief flashes of them, often hidden by shadow. It makes the later scenes in which we see them fully even more shocking. Their heads are more wolflike, but their bodies are an even mix of wolf and human. Reiterating what I said earlier, I really do prefer these types of werewolves to the CGI creations used in films like the Twilight franchise. There’s just something quite nostalgic about the costumes and prosthetics for me – I appreciate the craftsmanship that went into making them and they hearken back to a time before complex computer design.

In 2000, Ginger Snaps showed us an entirely different type of werewolf. I like this design too. Ginger Fitzgerald doesn’t fully transform into a werewolf until the end of the film, but the build-up to the final transformation is beautifully constructed. Ginger Snaps is a great teen horror flick and one of my personal favourite films. Ginger’s “curse” coincides with her menarche and the whole film serves as a really interesting allegory for female puberty and sexuality, in a similar vein to The Company of Wolves – in fact, I often recommend both of them at the same time because I think there’s a lot of thematic common ground.

The most recent release I’ve watched was Howl (2015). Fun fact: Howl was directed by Paul Hyett, who had previously worked on the SFX for Dog Soldiers. I’m glad they chose to do something starkly different with the werewolves in this film – they’re distinct from the Dog Soldiers werewolves but have just as much impact. There is some use of CGI, but I didn’t find myself as distracted by it as I have been in other examples. The werewolf designs are much more human, although not quite to the same extent as the very early examples from the 1930s. I won’t spoil the plot of the film, but the twist is insane and the ending is both satisfying and deeply unsatisfying.

Although they are by no means horror films, I think it’s worth discussing the werewolves of the Twilight saga. I’ve always found the CGI in these films incredibly distracting – it’s just not integrated well with the live-action sequences. The werewolves here are not particularly creative; in essence, they are just larger versions of ordinary wolves. I was a big fan of Twilight when I was in my early teens and I especially liked that Stephenie Meyer had constructed a “culture” for both vampire and werewolf society. The “fantasy culture” idea has been done better – Darren Shan’s vampire books are a fantastic example because they go into so much detail about vampire society – and we could have an extensive discussion about her appropriation of Native American ideas and traditions, but I still think the invented history and mythology behind the werewolves (and obviously the vampires) is probably the strongest part of the whole franchise. The werewolves of Twilight are much more sympathetic than earlier examples and I credit Twilight considerably with starting the cinematic trend of the “sexy monster” – or perhaps taking the idea of a sympathetic monster and dumbing it down and sexing it up removing all the subtlety from it.

On that note, I’d like to conclude by briefly summarising the evolution of the cinematic werewolf. It hasn’t been clean and simple. Depictions haven’t neatly evolved from humanoid to more lupine, from unsympathetic to sympathetic, from one-note to complex, in the way you might expect. Ginger Snaps and Dog Soldiers were released just two years apart in the early 2000s and they take drastically different viewpoints. The werewolves of Dog Soldiers are animals – they are motivated by a desire to kill and devour. They are not particularly complicated, layered characters. Ginger Fitzgerald, however, is a much more complex character. The audience is encouraged not only to be scared of her but also to be scared for her.

Like many movie monsters, that’s the beauty of the werewolf as a plot device. They are us and them all at once. They can be deeply human, flawed in a way that produces pathos, and they can just as easily be deeply inhuman. In every new werewolf film, it’s always interesting to see which way the balance will tip.