The Value of Viy
Viy is unconventionally wonderful. As a horror film it isn’t scary, as a character portrait it is a little shallow, and as a morality play it doesn’t make much of a statement, but its a great film. Viy is often called Russia’s first horror film. It was made in 1967 by Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov. Apparently they evaded the soviet censors by claiming the film was about folktales.
Excuse or not I think labeling the film a folktale is probably the most accurate descriptor. There is something warm and quaint about the whole film. The frightening elements are more like a campfire story than horror movie and the simplicity of the plot encapsulates it like something that could be passed from ear to ear.
Primarily what makes this film irresistible is its visuals. Its full of special effects that are accomplished by a myriad of different approaches. Some effects are gripping and very ambitious for 1967 and some of the effects don’t quite work but have wonderful camp value. Similarly the costumes and make up are absolutely amazing most of the time, but then when the titular character arrives we get a lumpy oaf with the flexibility of Godzilla.
Mixing black and white and color in the same image is something music videos and commercials have used all too often, but back in 1967 this film used it to great effect. The spirit world is black and white, our protagonist is colored and our witch hovers between the two. There are subtle hints of color that come and go and slightly tint what we see. The film would have definitely benefitted from more chiaroscuro. It would have been considerably more frightening if the whole thing surfaced out of darkness.
The music is great as well. We hear folk songs from the peasants with beautiful harmonies. We hear a variety of religious music and hymns. The incidental music is all large scale symphonic pieces. Probably all of musical choices in this film were at least partially informed by a need to highlight the beauty of Russian culture to please the censors but motivations aside the music is up front and present in this film and its beautiful.
Speaking of pleasing the censors this is the country of Eisenstein and the film has to display innovative techniques. There are a lot of spinning camera scenes. I often dread such scenes because they are nauseating, but that is not the case here. I’m note sure what they did, there must have been some Russian version of Sam Raimi over there. There are definitely green screens involved but when the dead witch goes surfing around the room on her coffin I didn’t care how it was done it was just great to watch. There is some kind of moral to be had about not being frightened by rumors or maybe its about the wages of sin it doesn’t really matter, its a very entertaining film.