USSR 1967, 77 mins
Directors: K. Yershov, G. Kropachyov

SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away some of the plot.

Circumventing the restrictions of Soviet film production, Viy is a loose adaptation of a Nikolai Gogol story in which a seminary student is asked to say prayers for the soul of a young, recently deceased woman who turns out to be a witch. Over three nights, the witch torments him relentlessly. With special effects by Aleksandr Ptushko, Viy possesses nightmarish imagery that has lost none of its punch with the passage of time.
Anna Bogutskaya,

Soviet cinema was no stranger to horrific imagery, as anyone who has seen Battleship Potemkin (1925) or Come and See (1985) can attest. But the Bolsheviks perceived the horror genre itself as inherently reactionary, and in the first 58 years of the USSR’s existence it produced only one title that could unambiguously be described as a horror film, at least until 1980’s Savage Hunt of King Stakh. Viy, however, was not just any old folk-horror yarn, but adapted from a short story by one of the most revered figures in Russian literature – the novelist, short-story writer and playwright Nikolai Gogol (1809-52), whom Vladimir Nabokov called ‘the strangest prose-poet Russia ever produced’.

Two factors may have helped Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov, both novice directors, convince Mosfilm to back their project. First, it was conceived as a patriotic ‘correction’ to Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (La maschera del demonio, 1960), based only very loosely on the same Gogol story and seen in the USSR as a Hollywood travesty of the source material, probably because the version distributed there was the American dub. Secondly, art direction and special effects were by Aleksandr Ptushko, who also received a co-writing credit. Ptushko, a visionary on the level of the Polish-Russian pioneer Wladyslaw Starewicz and Ray Harryhausen, had directed the first Soviet animated feature and a number of acclaimed live-action fantasies such as The Stone Flower (1946) and Sadko (1953), and his influence permeates the film.

Viy begins with scenes of boisterous student high jinks before following three seminarians through an increasingly desolate landscape in search of food and shelter. They spend the night at a farm where one of them, Khoma, is assaulted by an old witch and beats her to death in disgust, only to see the dying hag transformed into a beautiful young maiden. He flees in panic but, through a series of unfortunate circumstances, finds himself locked in a church, forced to hold vigil over the young woman’s corpse for three terrifying nights. Suffice to say, things don’t go well for him, and thanks to effects (stop motion, back projection, puppets and so on) that transcend the limitations of their time, the uncanny occurrences in the church can still generate a frisson. The witch’s frenzied attempts to break into the student’s hastily scrawled magic circle begin with her trying to breach the invisible wall like a manic Marcel Marceau, and escalate to her using her coffin as a battering ram-cum-surfboard. When all hell finally breaks loose (‘I summon the vampires! I summon the werewolves!’), it’s almost a relief, especially when the dreaded ‘Viy’ turns out to be a chonky gnome, though this might trigger unpleasant flashbacks in anyone traumatised as a child by the Nome King in Return to Oz (1985).

Gogol, born and brought up in Ukraine, first tasted literary success with Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka (1831), a collection of stories praised for their authentic depiction of Ukrainian peasant life; most are of a macabre, ironic bent, and feature witches or devils. ‘Viy’, dismissed by Nabokov as ‘a gooseflesh story, not particularly effective’, appears in Mirgorod, his second collection (1835). Both story and film begin with Gogol’s claim that ‘Viy is a colossal creation of the imagination of simple folk. The tale itself is a purely popular legend. And I tell it without change, in all its simplicity, exactly as I heard it told to me.’ In fact, it seems to be entirely a product of the author’s own imagination, making this a literary precursor to the ‘based on a true story’ horror trope – cf The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and The Blair Witch Project (1999). But the film makes it feel as though the story has sprung directly from Ukrainian soil.
Anne Billson, Sight & Sound, April 2021

Directors: K. Yershov, G. Kropachyov
Production Company: Mosfilm
Screenplay: A. Ptushko, K. Yershov, G. Kropachov
Based on Viy by: Nikolai Gogol
Directors of Photography: V. Pishchalnikov, F. Provorov
Editors: R. Pesetskaya, T. Zubova
Art Director: A. Ptushko
Special Effects: A. Ptushko
Music: K. Khachaturyan

Leonid Kuravlyov (Khoma)
Natalya Varley (mistress of house)
Aleksei Glazyrin (Cossack officer)
Nicolai Kutuzov (witch)
P. Veskliarov (rector)

USSR 1967
77 mins

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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