The first Soviet made horror film released in the USSR was 1967’s Viy. Viy is based on an 1800's Ukrainian folktale penned by Nikolai Gogol; the same tale was also used as the basis for Mario Bava’s acclaimed 1960 film Black Sunday. Not much is known about Viy co-director and co-writer Konstantin Ershov, who had 8 directing credits to his name, other than he died young at the age of 49. However, much more is known about co-director Georgiy Kropachyov, who died only recently in March 2016. While his directing career was short lived (only 2 credits including Viy), he was a highly skilled set designer. Working well into his 80’s, he designed the sets for the 2013, entirely POV shot, full immersion film Hard to Be a God.
Viy focuses on a traveling seminary student, prone to drunkenness and other vices, named Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov). The fledgling student is forced to watch over the body of a wealthy man’s daughter (Natalya Varley); who Khoma knows to have been a witch and whom he accidentally killed. Khoma is charged with standing vigil over the girl's coffin for 3 consecutive nights to protect the girl’s soul from evil spirits while they wait for burial.
The witch awakens each night to torture Khoma, whose only protection from her evil is to cower inside a sacred chalk circle and pray for salvation. With each passing night, the witch’s conjurations become more gruesome as she tries to penetrate the holy circle. Khoma’s faith alone may not be strong enough to protect him when the witch summons Viy, who all of her other demon minions fear.
Always a popular tale in Eastern Europe, it was translated to film for a Russian audience by Mosfilm; the oldest production company in Russia and believed to be one of the oldest (if not the oldest) in Europe. Mosfilm was responsible for bringing Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin), Chukhray (Ballad of a Soldier), and Tarkovsky (Solaris) to the masses; ushering in the revolutionary early era of Soviet Montage and the later era of bleak Eastern European Neo-Realism. Mosfilm began in 1923 and is still in operation today. Mosfilm is regarded as having done for Russia what UFA had done for the German film industry.
The pacing and effects used in Viy have always been divisive. Fans of slow burn Euro-horror à la Lucio Fulci, Jean Rollin, and Mario Bava, will appreciate the tension and atmosphere despite the lack of jump scares. Horror purists will love the practical effects including heavy prosthesis, trap door sets, stop motion animation, a hydraulic coffin, gymnasts and contortionists (the greater demon Viy was played by famed Moscow circus performer Nikolai Stepanov) despite the sometimes hokey (Harryhausen-esque) chroma key. If nothing else, Viy is a truly historical piece of cinema and Russian art that is beautifully shot and profoundly influential to a generation of up and coming European horror auteurs.
A Serbian remake named A Holy Place was produce in the 1990's and had a very brief festival run. A much more modern remake is the 2014 English language Viy, though it was met with mixed critical reception and is much more family friendly than the somber 1967 version.
Viy is not as widely available as many other Euro-Horror films of the same period, but it was released on DVD by two different companies in the early 2000's and can still be found online. Many unofficial VHS copies are rare and highly collectible. A selection of Mosfilm’s classics are officially available to watch online for free.