Sunday, October 17, 2021

Viy (1967) and Sveto Mesto: A Holy Place (1990)

Nikolai Gogol is a classic name in Russian Literature Among his many works to have been adapted to the screen is 1967 Russian classic Viy, often billed as the first Soviet horror film. First? Maybe not, but certainly one of the best...

Khoma is a priest-in-training, out relaxing with friends one night when he's assaulted by an old hag. He gets the upper hand and beats her into submission, whereupon she turns into a young maiden. The next day word reaches the church that a young girl in the nearby village has died, and her last wish is that Khoma give her three nights of holy rites over her body. A nervous Khoma has no idea what's going on, but her domineering father insists he can't say no, and so begin three nights that Khoma will not forget, and may not survive...

As far as I know, horror wasn't one of the most popular genres in the Iron Curtain, but there are a few exceptions, the most notable being dark fairy tale Viy. A plot about the failings of the church and corruption of the rich upper classes is certainly one that would be popular with the Soviet overlords, especially when it's based on the classics!

Viy is only 73 minutes, thank goodness, because a plot this minimal really couldn't be drawn out for much longer. The movie is built around the three nights. Viy takes its time with the set-up, introducing the world and characters to us, plus the inciting incident. The first two nights have some spooky moments, but they are over surprisingly quickly. Not in a bad way, though I was surprised the filmmakers didn't try and get more time out of them.

The climax is the most memorable part of the film, where Khoma is beset upon all manner of demons and monsters summoned by the girl.

Khoma is a strong protagonist, precisely because of how weak he is. If only the wastrel would show the slightest bit of faith and discipline he'd be ok! He'd triumph with ease, if not for his bad habit of getting shitfaced. He smokes, he drinks, and he curses, all while boasting about how as a Cossack he is fearless, unwittingly tempting demons to scare the shit out of him. I'm also not sure why he draws such a small circle of protection. He can barely even stand in it without tipping right out! It's all these faults that inevitably lead to his downfall, in a slightly downbeat but no less satisfying conclusion.

The evil young maiden is a strong villain in appearance and in action (even if the first and second nights are too short for her to do more than hover a little), but weak in story. We get very little background or information on her. Less can be more, but in this case it feels like a book that's missing a few chapters.

The film doesn't really have much wrap-up after the final confrontation, but we get a funny ending, which ruminates about the nature of storytelling.

The effects in Viy are a highlight, even over 50 years later. Are they cheesy, and occasionally unconvincing? Yes. But are they plentiful and memorable? You bet! There is such a fantastic selection of monsters on display here, all showing boundless imagination. The wirework and rear projection for the flying scenes are neat, and are mostly convincing. And the titular monster himself is nicely imposing, if a little cheesy.

The locations all look neat too, with a perfectly spooky central location, a neat old fashioned village and townhouse, and some lovely scenery. The direction by Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov is great, with some really dynamic moments. You can tell they really just had the one big idea, and use it all they can, but dammit it works like a charm! It gives a dizzying sense of scale and tension, making us feel as disoriented as Khoma.

Leonid Kuravlyiv is a great lead, handling the drunken cowardliness and boastfulness of his character well. Natalya Varley is delightfully spooky, and has a great time as the evil witch. The rest of the cast is all fine, and there are a few impressive bears and moustaches.

The music is pretty nice. There are some fantastical pieces, spooky ones, and a weirdly lighthearted one playing over the end credits.

Viy is a foreign horror classic, and well worth checking out! The Soviets may have been a pain in some ways, but at least their filmmakers never lacked in imagination...

Sveto Mesto

Toma is a young priest in training, out on a walk for the night with some colleagues, when he is violently assaulted by an old lady. He beats her to death, only for her to transform into a beautiful young maiden. The next day the village nearby mourns the sudden death of the local lord's daughter, and ask for Toma to perform her last rites over 3 nights, and ensure her safe passage into heaven. This soon proves difficult when the young woman, whose reputation for foul play precedes her, rises on the first night...

Sveto Mesto (translated to A Holy Place) is a Serbian horror classic. Directed by regarded local man Đorđe Kadijević, it's another adaption of Gogol's Viy story. I expected this to be just the same as the Soviet version, but it manages to stand out as its own thing!

The atmosphere in Sveto Mesto is dark and low key. The 3 nights that Toma has to endure don't necessarily have the most oomph or grandiosity, but they utilise mood efficiently and effectively, and don't resort much to cheap jump scares either.

The story has many dark and sordid implications and moments, from an incestuous relationship, to things that were only implied or hinted at in the 67 version. I've seen some compare this to a Walerian Borowczyk, and I can definitely see where they're coming from. It didn't feel exactly like his work to me, but it does share many hallmarks. A disdain for the ruling elite/aristocracy, showing corruption in the church and weakness in clergy, and sexual extremes that border on the violent. It's also directed by someone with almost as unpronouncable a name as his!

Where Sveto Mesto disappointed me was in the climax. It's intense in some ways, sure, but the big scary setpiece is just Toma getting ballstomped, like the herder before. It's a wince-inducing scene to be sure, but it is a bit cheap that literally all we get for the grand finale is the same thing we already saw 45 minutes ago.

Also missing from the finale is the following-Fake dancing skeletons, witches, imps, zombies, ghosts, and most of all, a gigantic demon with bunny ear eyelashes! I shouldn't be too upset since Sveto Mesto never actually promised any of these things, but when the previous movie had 'em in spades, with special effects 23 years older, it made me look forward to what we'd see here. Instead it's nothing!

The ending itself is a lot more downbeat than the original story, yet this is the version where the hero actually survives!

The performances in Sveto Mesto are all good. Everyone has got the costumes and gloriously orthodox facial hair down pat. Dragan Jovanović is a good lead, and surprisingly different in appearance to later movies! He is believably inexperienced as Toma, and gets across the terror of the situations well (if a bit over the top). Branka Pujić makes for a spooky and visually neat antagonist, and her mix of seduction and malice makes for a great performance. Interestingly enough, Dragan and Branka would soon get married after the making of this film! Still going strong too. Enemies on the screen, but great loves in real life...

While the film isn't heavy on effects, it's pretty sumptuous with its visuals. The locations all look great, and above all convincing. They make you feel like you're back in the middle ages. I liked the film's colour scheme too. It has a lot of natural blue, but never too much, and balances it out with other colours too.

Sveto Mesto is a great example of Serbian horror. Low-key, but full on, it's a worthy adaption of a classic story, and easily rivals the Russian original in many ways, even if not in all...

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