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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The Hidden Files #1: British Big Cats

This is the first installment of The Hidden Files, a series of articles based upon my research of cryptids.

What secrets do the forests, fields and moors of Britain hold? Could the British countryside be home to creatures roaming far beyond their natural habitat?

Since the 1950s, many eyewitnesses have asked themselves these same questions.

You wouldn’t think the quaint countryside of the south of England could shelter such mysterious creatures, but Devon and Cornwall made the Big Cats in Britain list of the top 10 counties with the most sightings. The most famous sightings of British big cats are arguably the Beast of Exmoor and the Beast of Bodmin. Sightings of the Beast of Exmoor began to be reported in the 1970s, although it wasn’t until 1983 that the beast achieved a degree of infamy: a farmer, Eric Ley, reported that he had lost over 100 sheep over the course of three months. Each had been mutilated and had had their throats torn out. In 1988, the complaints about the number of livestock deaths prompted the Ministry of Agriculture to send Royal Marines into the area to seek out the Beast of Exmoor. Several men believed they had spotted it, but no conclusive evidence was ever found. Similarly, the Beast of Bodmin made headlines in 1992 as the alleged culprit of livestock mutilations. Both creatures were described as panther-like or puma-like, despite neither of these cats being native to Britain.

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Photograph showing a large cat which is believed to be the Beast of Exmoor

The earliest cases in the 1950s include the Surrey Puma. The Surrey Puma was first seen in 1959 and by the mid-1960s, the police had developed specific records for big cat sightings – a collection which included a plaster cast of a paw print and a photograph of a remarkably long cat taken by Ian Pert, a police photographer. Another interesting case from the 1980s is that of the Fen Tiger, a big cat (unlikely to be an actual tiger!) which had apparently made its home in Cambridgeshire. The first sighting was in 1982, but it wasn’t until 1994 that actual evidence was supplied by William Rooker. He had captured two minutes of footage which appeared to show a large feline with black fur and, in his words, “a flat face”.

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Copyright to British Big Cat Society & William Rooker (1994)

The image above is a still from William Rooker’s original footage. If you scroll down to the end of this article from BBC Cambridgeshire, plenty of people have added their own accounts in the comments section, the most recent comment dating from 2009. Clearly, the Fen Tiger, along with big cat tales nationwide, are still present in the public imagination.

So how might we go about explaining these cats’ peculiar choice of home? The most plausible theory is that the presence of larger cats – especially those which are not native to Britain – is the result of new regulations introduced in 1976 under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act. Prior to this, it was ostensibly legal to own wild animals in this country without any kind of training or licence. The act declared that owners of certain types of exotic animals, particularly big cats, now required a permit. Perhaps some owners simply released their pets into the wild to avoid having to apply (and pay) for an ownership licence. Alternatively, owners may have released big cats they had been keeping as pets when the animals grew too large for their enclosures or became too difficult to handle.

Near where I live, a local man by the name of Lew Foley was well-known for keeping a pride of lions at his home in Cradley Heath. Last year, his friend Norman Catton claimed in the Birmingham Mail that Foley had released his lions over the Malvern Hills and in addition may have helped other people release their animals – possibly other big cats –  after the 1976 act. I must stress that this story remains unconfirmed, but it’s possible. In 2009, a statement from Big Cats In Britain made it clear that “There’s probably more than one up on the hills.” Without knowing how many other big cats may have been released, the Birmingham Mail suggested at least four or five felines could be prowling in the hills. Either way, I think it’s an interesting piece of local history and I like that it has taken on a “local legend” quality.

These cats are often called “phantom cats” and it’s been noted that these stories descend from the tradition in British folklore of the Black Dog, a ghostly canine who roams the moors and is an omen of ill fortune. Sightings of big cats are not generally considered supernatural in the way that the Black Dogs of the past were – instead, the idea of the cats having escaped from captivity bolsters people’s beliefs.

I think it’s entirely plausible that small numbers of big cats were released in the 1970s and might have survived in the countryside, but it’s also important to note that the big cat craze has resulted in several hoaxes, including a toy tiger being left in a field (prompting panic and a police helicopter search) and a cardboard cut-out of a panther being photographed and presented as evidence.

 

Draw whatever conclusion you like from reading the anecdotes and accounts of sightings, but you might want to take care if you’re walking alone across the moors or the hills of England – just in case. You never know what’s out there.

For more:

Please be aware – both documentaries briefly show images of the mutilated livestock in some “big cat” cases.

Lunar Files #3: La Bête du Gévaudan

This is the third installment of The Lunar Files, a series of articles based upon my research of werewolf (or wolf-like creature) cases.

Nearly 300 years ago, the mountains of southern France were home to a predator unlike any creature its people had encountered before.

Between 1764 and 1767, the people of the Gévaudan region (now modern Lozere) lived in constant fear of a creature said to be as large as a calf. The Wolf of Chazes, or The Beast of Gévaudan as it later came to be known, claimed the lives of an estimated 113 people – most of them women and children.

The first attack occurred in the summer of 1764. A young woman herding her cattle in the Mercoire Forest in Langogne saw the creature approaching her, but, fortunately, her herd managed to drive it away. Not long after, a second girl was found slaughtered near Langogne; in the town of Les Hubacs, 14-year-old Janne Boulet fell victim to La Bête. The people of the region continued to find the bodies of cattle and their fellow villagers alike, until, unsurprisingly, theories abounded about the creature’s origins. Was it a wolf? A hybrid? Or was it a creature of an altogether different kind – a werewolf? So many brutal maulings were occurring that the people believed there was a pair of beasts, or even that La Bête was hunting with a litter of young.

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18th-century engraving by A.F. of Alençon

It became clear that the beast favoured easy prey – lone men and women tending livestock and children. Its modus operandi was striking too; victims who were not entirely devoured were often found decapitated and the creature was said to unusually aim for the head rather than the legs or throat (which would be expected of a large predator).

In 1765, the king’s personal marksman Antoine de Beauterne was dispatched to the region to deal with the beast. However, his hunt was preceded by a showdown between La Bête and a teenage girl, Marie-Jeanne Valet. Marie-Jeanne was crossing a river in the woods when she spotted the beast approaching her from behind. She plunged a homemade spear into the creature’s chest and it retreated, holding its paw to the wound. The young girl’s bravery made it into Beauterne’s official account of the events. Eventually, in September 1765, Antoine de Beauterne led a group of 40 local men on a hunt for the beast in the woods of Pommier. He successfully shot an enormous wolf measuring six feet long. Following the death of this wolf, the attacks ceased.

Temporarily.

In the spring of 1767, the beast seemed to have risen from the dead and a second hunt which is believed to have culminated in the death of La Bête was funded by a local nobleman Marquis d’Apcher. Jean Chastel, a farmer and inn-keeper, shot the beast at Mont Mouchet on 19th June 1767. Writers of the time later introduced the idea that Chastel’s fatal shot was completed with a silver bullet of his own making, a concept which lent itself well to contemporary portrayals of the beast as a supernatural entity. La Bête was stuffed and embalmed, going on display around the country. When it reached the king, it had begun to decay and reek. What happened to the beast’s remains is unclear – some records state that the body was burned, others maintain it was buried.

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Memorial to Marie-Jeanne Valet (Philippe Kaeperlin, 1995)

Without the remains, we may never know exactly what slaughtered peasants in Gévaudan in the 18th century, but modern biologists, natural scientists and animal behaviourists have proposed numerous theories. The most common suggestion is a wolf – wolves were certainly common across central Europe at the time – but it’s important to consider the context. These people lived off the land and wolves would have been a regular sight at the foot of the French Alps, so it is unlikely that they would mistake a wolf, even a large one, for some kind of unnatural predator. A popular suspect is the striped hyena, which would explain the markings survivors claimed to see on the beast’s fur. Exotic animals from Africa were a spectacular addition to the menageries of the wealthy, so it is a distinct possibility. Another prime candidate is the lion. Descriptions of the beast – the tuft at the end of its tail, the dark stripe along its back, the reddish fur – would be consistent with a young male lion. Furthermore, lions attack larger prey by jumping on the victim’s back and throttling them (cutting off their oxygen). This might explain details such as the creature’s preference for attacking the head first.

More than 200 years later, La Bête du Gévaudan remains culturally relevant and is a draw for tourists in what is now Lozere (Gevaudan is no longer the name for the region). You can find the monument to Marie-Jeanne Valet in Auvers village, along with Maison de la Bête (House of the Beast), a museum dedicated to artefacts from the case. In Saugues, there is the Musée Fantastique de la Bête du Gévaudan (Fantastical Museum of The Beast of Gevaudan) and you can find another monument dedicated to Jean Chastel in La Besseyre-Saint-Mary. The beast was even the focus of a feature film Le Pacte des Loups (Brotherhood of the Wolf), which portrays the beast as a lion garbed in armour by its human master, and it is depicted as a werewolf in the TV series Teen Wolf.

If you find yourself in the countryside of Lozere one day, remember that, once upon a time, a man-eater stalked its unlucky prey in those beautiful rolling hills. Remember the legacy of La Bête.

For more:

Top 5 Most Disgusting Deaths From The Campaigns of Alexander the Great

For the past year, I’ve studied two sources about Alexander the Great for my Classics A-Level – The Age of Alexander by Plutarch and The Anabasis (Campaigns) of Alexander by Arrian. Although I’ve mostly been looking at Alexander’s battles and his character, both sources are full of… interesting anecdotes in which Alexander’s enemies (and sometimes his friends) die in brutal ways. Brutal, but morbidly fascinating nonetheless.

So, in order to entertain you by combining my love of weird, gross things with my passion for history, I’ve ranked the Top 5 Most Disgusting Deaths from Alexander’s campaigns.

5. Cleitus the Black, who was only trying to be a good friend

I’ve ranked this fifth because, while it’s not what you might call a creative way to go, it’s actually pretty heartbreaking. Cleitus had saved Alexander back in 334BC at the Battle of the Granicus, slicing off the arm of a Persian soldier (Spithridates) who was about to attack him. You might think that this incident would obviously leave Alexander indebted to him.

You would be wrong, because this is Alexander the Great we’re talking about. What better way to reward your friend for saving your life than murdering him with a spear six years later? Cleitus took issue with Alexander’s “Medizing” – his adoption of Persian customs – and the famously short-tempered king responded to criticism by killing him.

Cleitus did manage to get one sick burn in there before he was stabbed, reciting a line from Euripides’ tragedy Andromache: “Alas, what evil customs reign in Greece!”

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“Alexander Kills Cleitus”, Andre Castaigne

4. The Macedonian Hostages at Tyre

In 333BC, Alexander embarked on a siege of the island fortress of Tyre, which lasted for seven months. The island was out of range of his siege artillery, so Alexander and his engineers had to rely on technical innovations and new strategies to attack it.

Tyre was not only an island, but it was an island with fortified walls of about 150ft. This presented problems for Alexander; however, these walls were ideal for the Tyrians to make a show of strength and make their rebuke of Alexander’s negotiations clear… by throwing Macedonian ambassadors off them in full view of Alexander’s army.

In the long term, this was not a wise decision. When the Macedonians eventually broke through the walls, they had grown tired after the long siege and were ready to have their revenge for the deaths of the hostages. An estimated 8000 Tyrians were slaughtered and a further 30,000 were sold into slavery.

3. Calanus, the fiery philosopher

Alexander met the elderly philosopher Calanus while in India and was impressed by him, especially by an analogy Calanus made using a piece of animal hide to advise Alexander on effective governance (new party piece, anyone?). Calanus subsequently joined Alexander’s entourage on their return journey to Babylon, but fell ill along the way. At Susa in 323BC, the dying man decided he would cut his own suffering short via self-immolation – burning himself alive.

Arrian writes that there was “a solemn procession” accompanying Calanus to his funeral pyre, although in Plutarch’s account, there was a raucous drinking party in his honour. Knowing Alexander, I’m tempted to go with the latter option. Either way, Calanus went out with a bang, or at least a nice crackle (I’m so sorry).

Fun fact:  Calanus’ final words to Alexander before he went to his pyre were allegedly that they “(would) meet again in Babylon”. Alexander later died in Babylon. Spooooooky.

2. Anaxarchus, philosopher and gobshite

Anaxarchus was one of two key philosophers in Alexander’s entourage who fought for his attention. The other was Callisthenes, who was implicated in a conspiracy against Alexander and arrested. Following Callisthenes’ arrest, Anaxarchus became the favoured philosopher, despite having views which conflicted with Alexander’s own – he was sceptical of Alexander’s status as a demi-god and had a theory of infinite worlds (an early variant of the parallel universe idea), which upset Alexander because he had not yet conquered even one world.

The philosopher finally met his demise at the hands of Nicocreon, the tyrant of Cyprus, in around 320BC. He had insulted Nicocreon once during a visit by the Cypriot leader to Alexander, and Nicocreon clearly took offense. Anaxarchus was pounded to death in a giant pestle and mortar (don’t worry, I don’t know how they managed that either).

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My artistic interpretation of it.

Honourable mentions:

Callisthenes – Anaxarchus’ rival philosopher. Allegedly died of “excessive corpulence” in prison, which is paradoxical but also a horrific mental image. Imagine it. Go on. Gross, isn’t it?

Batis – a eunuch (I don’t know why this information is supplied to us by the authors) and the ruler of Gaza, a settlement Alexander encountered on his way to Egypt. After the city’s capture, Alexander had Batis attached by his ankles to a cart and dragged round the city’s perimeter several times, à la Hector in The Iliad.

The People Who Drowned In The Desert – in 325BC, Alexander decided to make his way back to Babylon by crossing the Gedrosian Desert. Arrian relates the difficulties of this journey in his account. On one occasion, heavy rainfall – they were crossing during monsoon season – made a stream burst its banks next to their camp, resulting in a huge loss of life. The majority of those who drowned were women and children rather than members of Alexander’s army.

And one close-call (spoiler: he doesn’t die) – Stephanus, a boy known only for being remarkably ugly but astonishingly brave, who allowed himself to be set alight with naptha as an experiment for Alexander’s entertainment. He survived but was badly burned. And that’s how he earned the nickname Disco Inferno.

1. Bessus, the one that (nearly) got away

Bessus was a relative of the Persian king Darius III. After the Battle of Gaugamela, in which Alexander defeated Darius for the final time, Darius escaped but was kidnapped by Bessus and his accomplices. Bessus declared himself king and fled with his hostage, which was followed by a lengthy pursuit by Alexander across the empire. By the time Alexander caught up with them, Darius had been murdered and abandoned in the back of a wagon. Such a nondescript demise for his arch nemesis was not what Alexander wanted.

When Bessus was eventually captured by Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s companions, his execution had to send a message about the status of a king, suitably avenge Darius to please the people of Persia and get Alexander’s rocks off   demonstrate Alexander’s ruthlessness towards those who would challenge his throne.

There are two stories about how Bessus was executed. In Arrian’s version, Bessus had his nose and lips cut off, was paraded around in a collar and then finally executed. But in Plutarch’s version – the version which places so high on this list – Bessus’ limbs were tied to trees which had been bent over. When the trees were released, the attached limbs were torn off. 😦

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Thanks for reading! Hope you enjoyed this – please consider liking/sharing!

For more about Alexander:

  • Arrian, The Campaigns of Alexander – the funniest book you’ll ever read.
  • Plutarch, Lives: The Age of Alexander (I’d recommend getting this in physical format, but it’s shorter than Arrian’s account so you could probably get away with reading it online. Here’s the contents page and here’s the first section, provided by Lacus Curtius (University of Chicago).)
  • Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great
  • Livius.org, Macedon (masterlist of all their Alexander articles)
  • Ancient History Encyclopaedia, Alexander the Great

World of Weird: Secrets of Europe’s Bog Bodies

I read an article earlier from Smithsonian Magazine about the continued research into bodies found in Europe’s peat bogs, how they are studied and how they ended up in the bogs.

Archaeologists have been asking the same questions since the Hojgaards first troubled Tollund Man’s long sleep: Who are you? Where did you come from? How did you live? Who murdered you and why? But the way the researchers ask the questions, using new forensic techniques like dual-energy CT scanners and strontium tests, is getting more sophisticated all the time. There’s new hope that, sometime soon, he may start to speak.

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Article here.