At first, the young philosopher is convinced that the old woman is trying to seduce him; laughing, he struts across the empty barn and barks that he would not let her tempt him for “all the gold in the world.” As she continues to stare into his eyes, though, the young man’s will begins to falter. He stands frozen in place as the old lady climbs his back and beckons him to move. First the philosopher walks, then he runs, and suddenly he finds himself flying above the Ukrainian countryside, the old woman still perched cackling atop his shoulders. “Good Lord,” the philosopher screams, “she’s a witch!” And so begins the fantastical struggle at the heart of the Russian horror film Viy, one of the most remarkable titles in the imminent “Witches’ Brew” program at BAMcinématek.
In the late 1960s, as directors like Sergei Parajanov and Iuri Illienko were causing a stir in the film industry with their new approach to national cinema, a slightly more commercial project was making waves within the Soviet Union. It was then that Mosfilm Studios released Viy, its first ever horror film, a gothic ghost story that follows a young Ukrainian seminarian as he stands vigil over the body of the witch who tried to kill him. Over the course of three nights, the seminarian is driven to exhaustion by the witch’s attempts to escape her tomb, until he finally dies of fright when confronted by the Viy, the king of the goblins. Despite its tremendous domestic success—the film had an estimated 32.6 million viewers the year it was released—Viy never broke through to international audiences, leaving it as more the answer to a trivia question (“What was the only horror film made under the Soviet Union?”) than a part of the international horror cannon.
All of which is a shame, because Viy’s status as the sole Soviet horror film is only the beginning of what makes it so unique. While many classic horror films come from the fringes of the establishment—low-budget filmmakers, for example, or people operating on the outskirts of a state-controlled film industry—Viy was the product of two of the Soviet Union’s most respected artists. Author Nikolai Gogol, whose short story provided the basis for the film, was considered one of the great writers of the nineteenth century and was a particular favorite of party head Joseph Stalin (who erected a statue of the writer in 1952). Meanwhile, the film’s producer—and alleged director, though that title was shared by two of his former students—was none other than Aleksandr Ptushko, the “Soviet Walt Disney,” whose use of stop-motion animation made him one of the Soviet Union’s most beloved filmmakers despite his rejection of socialist realism in favor of more fantastical themes. Ptushko was one of the rare Soviet directors to find international success; his 1935 adaptation of Guilliver’s Travels opened to rave reviews in newspapers around the world while his 1945 film The Stone Flower was the first Soviet film to be shot in color (using film stock captured during World War II, no less) and was nominated for two awards at the Cannes Film Festival.
As such, the impact of the film is surprisingly varied. Those interested in Viy only as an exotic horror film about witches will not be disappointed: Ptushko and his crew make almost no changes to the script from Gogol’s short story, and as a result, the film acts as a perfect synthesis of Gogol’s dark sense of humor and Ptushko’s talent for practical effects. Each of the three nights that Khoma spends in vigil over the undead witch is a charming mixture of set design and practical effects. When the witch appeals to the goblin king in particular, all manner of demons crawl from every hole and window in the old church, only to be caught in the dawning light as they try to flee back to their graves. Granted, the results aren’t always particularly frightening; Russian film historian Josephine Woll referred to Viy as a movie that should only “marginally be counted as a horror film,” and the passage of time has done no favors to Viy’s repeated green screen flying sequences. Still, Viy is no low-budget nightmare and will appeal to anyone with a love of the genre and a dislike of those who laugh at older films.
There is a second level to the film, though, and one that suggests Viy is a far more important political film than previously thought. Despite the fact that both Gogol and Ptushko were considered great artists of the Soviet Union, both men were, in fact, Ukrainian by way of birth. Gogol may have written characters steeped in superstition and drunkenness—Viy’s protagonist Khoma easily fits into this mold—but over the years, historians have adopted a more sympathetic view toward Gogol and his overtures to Ukrainian nationalism. The term kotliarevshchyna in particular—referring to an earthy, burlesque humor that ridicules Ukrainian culture even as it conveys a sense of unique cultural identity—is present throughout much of Gogol’s work, and Ptushko does nothing to tone down both sides of Ukrainian identity. Khoma may be a coward, and the Cossacks in the film may be riotous drunks, but they follow their own local customs and rituals, sing Ukrainian folk songs, and even passionately opine on their chances of joining the local university and the intelligentsia. Gogol and Ptushko have watered down Ukrainian culture to make it acceptable to Russian audiences and, in doing so, are able to keep the very idea of Ukraine alive without anyone being the wiser. “Little Russia” has the theater all to itself.
In this way, Viy serves as the prototypical horror film of the 1960s, one whose special effects and lowbrow exterior disguise its own considerably more nuanced agenda. A year after Viy was released in theaters, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby changed the horror genre forever; the Russian horror genre, meanwhile, would disappear again until the fall of the Soviet Union. While countless words have been spent praising filmmakers such as Miklós Jancsó and Sergei Parajanov on their subversive approach to filmmaking under the watchful eye of the Soviet Union—and rightfully so—it is a campy little film about witches and goblins released under the Soviet Union’s own banner and seen by millions that may have struck the strongest blow against Russian imperialism.