Viy: Limited Edition [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (27th February 2021).
The Film

Viy: Vacation has come for the residents of a Russian seminary in the countryside and it's time for mischief. On their way home on foot, Khayalava the Theologian (Men and Beasts' Vadim Zakharchenko), Gorobets the Orator (Police Academy: Mission to Moscow's Vladimir Salnikov), and Khoma the Philosopher (Robinson Crusoe's Leonid Kuravlyov) get lost in the fog and beg shelter at a farm belonging to an old crone who insists that they sleep in three separate places on the farm. When she appears to Khoma in the barn, he at first believes that she is making advances to him but she jumps onto his back and rides him around the woods like a horse. When his feet leave the ground, he realizes that she is a witch and implores to God to free him. When they fall to the ground, he starts beating the witch with a stick but is horrified when she turns into a beautiful young woman and flees back to the monastery. No sooner does he return than the Rector (Pyotr Vesklyarov) announces that a wealthy local landowner (War and Peace's Aleksey Glazyrin) has summoned Khoma specifically to pray for the soul of his young daughter is dying after having been found brutally beaten. Although Khoma refuses to go, the Rector orders him and the landowners servants prevent him from trying to escape. The girl dies before Khoma arrives and her father interrogates Khoma as to why she specifically requested him and offers to reward him handsomely if he prays over her body for three nights. Khoma and the girl's coffin are locked in an old wooden church for the night, and his prayers seem to go unheard when the girl sits up in her coffin. Khoma draws a magic circle around himself and his lectern that renders him invisible to the supernatural even as she sails around him in her coffin trying to penetrate the invisible barrier and turns his hair white on the second night. Although he believes that the girl was clearly in league with the devil, the promise of riches and fear of punishment brings him back the third night ("a thousand gold pieces or a thousand lashes"); whereupon the girl summons all the ghouls, werewolves, vampires, and finally the elder god Viy who can see through the barrier once his heavy, iron eyelids are opened.

Based on the novella by Nikolai Gogol that also served as the basis for Mario Bava's Black Sunday and son Lamberto Bava's somewhat more faithful Mask of Satan Viy was directed by actor Konstantin Ershov and production designer Georgiy Kropachyov (Hard to Be a God), but its visuals and effects were designed by Aleksandr Ptushko who had been a specialist in big cinematic adaptations of Russian fantasy in the fifties including the Sovscope, four-track stereo Ilya Muromets and Sampo which made it stateside in compromised form as The Sword and the Dragon and The Day the Earth Froze, Sadko which Roger Corman's Filmgroup recut and redubbed as The Magic Voyage of Sinbad while his bigger later films Ruslan and Ludmila and The Tale of Tsar Saltan did not make it over here until the Russian Cinema Council remastered them for DVD. Although there are some parallels between the two films, the tone is actually rather lighter than the liberal Bava adaptation, finding comic value in Khoma's fearfulness while the young witch is barely a character. Although the state-supported budget is richly-reflected in the studio sets which include a revolving soundstage used for some insert shots of the monks walking through the countryside and the supernatural movements of the witch and other monsters, the in-camera effects are not as polished as what Bava achieved on a fraction of the budget. The visualizations of the monsters through stop motion, overcranking, undercranking, and reverse motion is effective and the highlight of the film, but it remains more of a fairy tale than a horror film with Khoma seemingly visited retribution by an old witch and his fear stoked by demons posing as her mourning father and his faithful servances (dancing around the suggestion that the carousing monk might have raped and killed a young woman). Gogol's story would be adapted again in Yugoslavia as Sveto Mesto (or A Holy Place as it is titled on the bonus disc of this release), updated as Evil in Russia in 2006, and as the big-budget Viy in 2014 in 3D.
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A Holy Place: Fearing wolves and the cold on the long walk back to their villages during the school holidays, seminary students Toma (Dragan Jovanovic), Marko (Igor Pervic), and Slikar (Dragan Zaric) search for lodging for the night. Separated from his brothers, Toma comes up alongside a black carriage carrying a beautiful, dark-haired young woman (Branka Pujic) who mesmerizes him. The trio happen upon a rundown farm, and the old woman reluctantly offers up her hospitality, although she insists that they take separate sleeping quarters ("you're too dangerous together"), putting Toma in the barn where he sites in the distance the black carriage. Later that night, the old woman assaults him, jumping onto his back and lifting him off the ground. Toma's fervent prays weaken the witch's power and he beats her savagely when they hit the ground only for the old woman to transform into the young woman. Frightened off by the approaching carriage, Toma runs all the way back to the monastery where his two brothers are under the impression that his "servicing" of the old woman was the reason she made them breakfast. He is immediately summoned by the rector (Dusan Janicijevic) who tasks him with praying over the body of the daughter of local landowner Zupanski (Aleksandar Bercek) for the next three nights. Shaken by the events of the previous night, Toma refuses only to be told that he has no choice. Although Toma insists that he is a bad fit for the task, the mournful Zupanski tells him that his daughter asked for Toma specifically with her dying breath, and family retainers Doros (Danilo Lazovic) and Spira (Rados Bajic) who ply him with enough liquor that he is too drunk to make an escape. Toma is shocked to discover that the young woman in the carriage and Zupanski's daughter Katarina are one in the same, and his fear is not allayed by learning that the chapel in which he will pray over her corpse for three nights is "a holy place for the burial of virgins."

In its broad strokes, Sveto Mesto remains faithful to the Gogol tale, transposed to the Slavic countryside in the nineteenth century; the liberties it takes with the source material, however, shift the story from dark humor to psychology and eroticism in the Gothic mold. As mentioned in the supplementary material on Viy, there are a handful of sado-erotic interpretations of scene between the old woman and Toma. Here, the scene is unambiguously one of sexual assault before the levitation, and there is a hint of necrophilia in his reaction to her transformation into a dying, beautiful woman. While the Ptushko film intimated that the father of the witch might be a vengeful spirit himself, luring the monk to his doom, this adaptation hints at an incestuous relationship between father and daughter that has damned them to be haunted by his dead wife (Mira Banjac) who the maid Lenka (Maja Sabljic) tells Toma was "a mother to all of us." Rather than possible agents of the witch, Doros, Spira, and Lenka in soliciting Toma's belief in witches appear to be seeking confirmation of their own superstitions. Doros relates to Toma how the estate's once virile dog trainer Nikita (Predrag Miletic) became a stuttering half-wit under the boot of Katarina ("Only the devil knows what's left of him down there"), Spiros tells of Katarina's fainting spell upon crossing the threshold of the chapel for a service, and Lenka tells of being seduced by Katarina, beaten by her angry (jealous?) father, and then seemingly punished by Katarina for taking Nikita into her bed. Each of these stories is subtly mirrored in Toma's increasingly frightening encounters with Katarina over the three nights (one of which recalls The Woman in Black's major scare set-piece in style and execution) until the climax which eschews the manifestation of multiple demons in favor of what might be a continuation of the sexual assault or retribution if one interprets the encounter with the witch as a delusion and that the monk actually assaulted the girl and another suggestion of necrophilia (although sadly, Toma's fate is not that of Nikita). The ending appears at first to be a circular twist ending thanks to a bit of misdirection, with the next victim perhaps a bit more deserving. As with a number of communist Eastern European countries, the horror genre was a bit of a rarity in Yugoslavia apart from a handful of American productions shot there, including the original incarnation of Operation Ticijan helmed by Rados Novakovic and supervised by Francis Ford Coppola (first released in English as Portrait in Terror and later recut, reshot, and re-edited into Blood Bath alternately by Jack Hill and Stephanie Rothman,and then expanded into the television version Track of the Vampire), Jeff Kwitny's Beyond the Door III, and Manny Coto's Playroom and director Djordje Kadijevic was a rare specialist in the genre, having previously helmed the television movies Leptirica and Devicanska svirka.
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Video

Although exported to other countries at the time of its release, Viy remained unreleased in the US and UK and was only accessible via a Japanese-subtitled laserdisc from Toho Video until Ruscico (Russian Cinema Council) put out PAL and PAL-converted NTSC DVDs in Russia with original Russian and English dubs and newer dubs in other languages, as well as several subtitle options (the PAL-converted NTSC edition was distributed in the US by Image Entertainment. Eureka's Blu-ray was preceded in 2019 by Severin Films' limited edition and standard edition Blu-ray editions. Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 pillarboxed fullscreen "HD restoration from original film elements" appears to be the same master which looks a bit bluer than the earlier, paler SD PAL transfer, enhancing the supernatural aspect by making the young witch's pallor seem less lifelike without effecting the human characters while the image is shaper and slightly darker.
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Unreleased in any official form outside of its native land apart from poor gray market sources, A Holy Place comes to 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 pillarboxed fullscreen Blu-ray in unrestored form with a litany of vertical scratches at the beginnings of each reels and intermittently throughout, and the blacks are not particularly well-delineated between clothing and shadows, suggesting that Serbian film archiving is as inconsistent as the Czech; however, it is the only official way to see it and a certain upgrade from the boots.

Audio

Viy features the original Russian audio and the English dub in LPCM 2.0 mono tracks, both sounding as clean as they did on the Severin release. Of course, the Russian is recommended, but the vintage English dub is also a worthy listen (compared to some of the Russian Cinema Council's English dubs prepared for specifically for DVD release in the early 2000s). The disc has optional English subtitle for the Russian track (Severin also included SDH subtitles for the English dub).

A Holy Place's LPCM 2.0 Serbo-Croat mono track is presumably from the film source used for the image. Although it has likely undergone some digital clean-up, the digital track could not quite do away with all of the signs of its age and damage to the optical track (more noticeable because the sound design is rather spare, consisting mainly of dialogue, the synthesizer score, and effects with little ambience. Optional English subtitles appear free of errors.

Extras

Viy is accompanied by a new audio commentary by film historian Michael Brooke in which he notes that the film is the only work of supernatural horror produced during the Soviet era, but that the project was initiated by directors Ershov and Kropachyov as a faithful adaptation to "undue the indignities" of the Bava version, approached as a literary adaptation, and as a work of Ukranian nationalism before Mosfilm imposed Ptushko to turn it into more of a work of spectacle, and that its supernatural horror and native superstition trumping organized religion is appropriate to the Soviet state's doctrine of atheism. He also provides detail about the source novel and touches in the film that would be more familiar to Russian audiences than foreign: noting that the titles of orator, theologian, and philosopher of the three students are levels of education rather than professions, and that while foreign audiences would be familiar with the conceit of unsuspecting characters accepting hospitality from the sinister, it was actually a tradition of monks to sing for their supper and lodging when traveling (and that it is here used as a tactic by the young monks whose carousing ways would also not be deemed sacrilegious by the atheist state). Remembering Nikolai Gogol (19:06) is a 1939 documentary commemorating the one hundred and thirtieth anniversary of Gogol's birth. It is a bit of a propaganda film, visiting Gogol's place of birth in Mirgorod, noting the barren land where Gogol might have witnessed the "poverty and depravity" of the people has given way to "socialist fields." There are also visits to a ceramics school named after him as well as a museum devoted to his life. More appropriate to the country's first "realist writer" is Samuel Goff on Nikolai Gogol (15:05), a 2021 audio essay in which notes the contradictions in the author's life as realist, absurdist, and religious fanatic while also discussing his major works, noting Gogol's mining of his own Ukranian heritage for folk stories for inspiration and his borrowings from E.T.A. Hoffmann. The disc also includes three Russian silent film fragments (also included on the Severin disc). Satan Exultant (19:30) is actually a surviving excerpt from a feature film dealing with the devil's influences on generations of a religious family. The Queen of Spades (16:30) is a short adaptation of the story by Alexandr Pushkin about a young soldier who wants to learn the secret of the cards to win at gambling and offers to take upon himself the sins of an aged countess who had sold her soul for the secret (a feature-length version made in Britain in 1949 was recently released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber). The Portrait (7:53) is about a man who buys a painting that has a life of its own. This slight piece actually manages to raise some genuine shivers briefly. The disc closes out with the 1967 English-language export theatrical trailer (2:36).
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The only extra on the bonus disc is the welcome "Djordje Kadijevic on A Holy Place" interview (27:50) in which Kadijevic notes that the he felt that his colleagues were making apologetic communist works and that his counter-revolutionary films got banned by the ideological censors, leading to his move to television where he found more creative and cultured people (film producers were installed positions at the time), and that he decided to move to the fantasy genre (not necessarily horror). Of Viy, he notes the universality of certain aspects of it, so that is not a distinctly Russian work nor is the film necessarily Serbian or Slavic, and that his adaptation introduce an "ambiguous psychology" to the story.

Packaging

The discs and case are housed in an exclusive O-Card slipcase (slipcase and bonus disc are limited to 3,000 copies). Housed with the discs is a31-page collector's booklet featuring "Aleksandr Ptushko: Honest Tales of Bygone Days" by Tim Lucas who contextualizes the film within the oeuvre of Ptushko's fantastic filmography, as well as elucidating his position on the film as "artistic director". "A Holy Place" by Dejan Ognjanović which will presumably dropped from the standard edition's booklet briefly discusses Serbian cinema's infrequent works of horror which are usually rooted in the real, and then goes on to discuss the genre credits of Kadijevic including the aforementioned Leptirica comparing the reaction of Serbian audiences to the television film with that of American audiences to the made-for-TV terrors of Dan Curtis and the British Ghost Stories for Christmas adaptations the gothic Devicanska svirka, and A Holy Place using Gogol's story as a springboard to explore "the dark side of eroticism," and likens the invented ending to the works of Pupi Avati. The booklet also includes viewing notes and Blu-ray credits.
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Overall

Eureka's limited edition of Viy provides the opportunity not only to assess to adaptations of the Gogol story outside of Bava's Black Sunday, but also to see rare treatments of horror in countries where the genre is scarce.

 


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