My odyssey through the strange world of Russian fantasy films began in earnest many years ago, when I moved to a prominently Russian and Ukrainian neighborhood and started prowling around the DVD stores of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Up until then, I’d caught glimpses of this strange and wonderful looking avenue of cinema in the form of dubbed and edited American versions of the films, where Ilya Muromets became The Sword and the Dragon and Sadko became The Magic Voyage of Sinbad. These movies made regular rounds on broadcast television back when I was a kid, and I loved them without having any idea they were Russian fantasy films tailored by crafty American distributors to become nationless adventure spectacle. They were colorful, they were full of monsters, and they had lots of guys with swords running at each other. When I crept a little closer to old age, I decided I wanted to find the original versions of the films — much as I did with Eastern Bloc science fiction films — not just to see what had been changed, but also to see them in a better quality than I’d enjoyed on independent broadcast television with rabbit-ear antennae reception.

Luckily, that suddenly kindled fire corresponded nicely with the release of a whole slew of Russian fantasy films, subtitled and in their original form, on DVDs that were easy to find. My first forays were to re-acquaint myself with the films that had become familiar fantasy fare from my youth. My second look was a first look at a movie entirely unfamiliar to me in any form: Viy. Most of what I knew as Russian fantasy film came from the 1950s and was directed by Aleksandr Ptushko. It was all bright and cheery and full of familiar adventure and “happily ever after” tropes. Viy, however, is a much later and much spookier entry in the cycle, despite the fact that Ptushko still had some small hand in the script (I think it was probably some sort of law that he had to be involved in all films with fantastic elements). It was released in 1967 and directed by the team of Konstantin Ershov and Georgi Kropachyov, neither of whom had any notable experience at the time (and neither of whom had substantial directing careers afterward). Although the Ptushko films boasted elements of the darkness that informs most European (both Eastern and Western) folklore, they were largely playful fantasy or spectacular historical epic (provided your version of Rus history includes wind demons and dragons). Viy is a different type of fairytale entirely, steeped heavily in the dark and sinister end of fairytales and informed less by historical fantasy and more by Gothic horror. Less Hans Christian Andersen, more Mario Bava.

Based on a story by Ukrainian-born writer Nikolai Gogol, Viy is the story of good-for-nothing layabout Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov), a scholar from the local monastery who with his two friends is on his way home for a break from the rigors of not really applying himself to his studies. To be fair to Khoma, he seems no worse than the rest of the students, who follow their release from seminary school with goose-theft, drunken carousing, and occasional grab-ass. The trio becomes lost in the woods, possibly because their primary concern in life seems to be finding and consuming vodka. They are forced to desperately seek shelter in a remote, creepy looking farmhouse. The farmhouse’s owner, a crotchety old crone (male actor Nikolai Kutuzov) doesn’t want to let them in, but they eventually convince her to take pity on them. She splits the three up, allowing one to sleep in the shack, one in a loft, and poor Khoma is stuck sleeping in the barn.

As he struggles late into the night to get comfortable, Khoma is approached by the crone, who at first he things is putting the movies on him. It soon becomes apparent even to the dim-witted Khoma that something else is afoot. Before he can react though, the cackling old woman has climbed onto his shoulders, cast a spell, and is forcing Khoma to carry her around — first like a horse, then like a broomstick as he and the witch take to the sky. Only by frantically chanting exorcisms and prayers is Khoma is able to force himself and his supernatural rider back to earth. I suppose she thought he would appreciate a fun night of flying around, but Khoma seems not to have enjoyed their late night frolic as much as the witch. He sets about beating her as soon as they land and she dismounts. But when the witch suddenly transforms into a beautiful young woman (Natalya Varley), Khoma is either confused or aghast, maybe both. Whatever the case, he runs off back to the monastery, leaving the young woman lying in the swamp.

Back at school, Khoma is anxious to put the whole weird experience behind him and get back to his life of being a screw-up who constantly infuriates that pesky dean. This gets complicated, however, when a caravan of bearded, barrel-chested Cossacks arrive with a demand. It seems their lord’s beloved daughter is on her deathbed, and her final request was that final prayers for her be delivered by Khoma. No one understands why. Khoma is a nobody after all. He hasn’t even completed his studies and generally seems poor at whatever job he takes on. But when a big, moustached Cossack warlord demands you come to his village and pray over the body of his tragically departed daughter, it’s bad for your health to turn him down. Despite his reluctance — motivated it seems primarily out of “but I don’t wanna” laziness more than anything else — Khoma leaves for the village. He gets along well enough with his escort, mostly because their only interest seems to be getting drunk and singing. This, at least, are past times at which Khoma excels. His occasional forays into escaping illustrate, however, that though they are a jovial and friendly lot, they are not to be crossed.

When he arrives in the village, much to Khoma’s shock, but not really to ours, the dead girl is the very same one he left dying in the swamp after bludgeoning her. Making matters more horrifying is that the locals seem to know, or at least suspect, that she was a witch in league with the devil. Khoma hopes this provides him an out for spending three nights alone with her corpse in a creepy, run-down old chapel. Unlucky for Khoma that to her father, a daughter’s dying request is a daughter’s dying request, blood-sucking witch or not. And so Khoma is bustled off by his hearty new chums and locked in the chapel for the first of his three fateful nights with the dead girl — who, naturally (supernaturally), is not quite so peaceful as one hopes the dead to be.

Although Nikolai Gogol wrote his stories in Russian (his native Ukrainian was outlawed in the 19th century), he still drew heavily from Ukrainian folklore for his stories, though the titular demon of Viy seems to be something with no correlation to known folk monsters. It was a popular story, and in 1960 Viy was adapted into a film by soon-to-be-legendary Italian horror director Mario Bava. Titled Black Sunday and starring Barbara Steele, it became one of the most iconic Gothic horror films in cinema history. The Russian adaptation released seven years later is a more faithful adaptation of the story. While familiar with and obviously influenced by Bava, Viy remains very much its own thing. Many of the stylistic decisions are obvious homages to Bava, especially once the supernatural shenanigans start up and weird lighting lets us know we’re in for some scares. The primary difference between the two versions (besides Viy being in color) is that in Black Sunday, Barbara Steele emerges as the star (I can barely even remember the male lead), where as Viy is solidly the story of Khoma — though he could hardly be considered a hero.

Viy also looks to the dawn of cinema for influences, specifically silent-era horror films like Haxan and F.W. Murnau’s Faust. In particular, the finale of Viy, which sees the dead witch’s fury toward Khoma culminate on their third night together with an all-assault by all the monsters and demons of Hell, looks almost exactly like something that could have been pulled from either of the aforementioned silent horror films, right down to the design and even the scurrying movement of the many devils who emerge from the walls to torment poor, stupid Khoma. Many in this grotesque menagerie of monsters look plucked right out of Haxan. For that matter, so does the midnight flight of the witch atop Khoma. For my money, there’s no finer imagery in horror film history than the surreal nightmares of the silent era, so Viy is wise to turn to them and unleash such vintage yet timelessly effective horrors in its tense and hair-raising final confrontation.

It’s amazing that there is so much to digest in such a short film (it clocks in at about seventy minutes). Being a film from the Soviet era, there is the temptation to delve into Soviet era subtext, and I am sure some can be found. However, I don’t think that is the point of the film, nor is it as overt as it often was in the Soviet science fiction films if it is there. There is an inherent criticism of the hypocrisy of the church, but that is hardly a uniquely Soviet or communist theme. Khoma certainly suffers for being a poor excuse for a worker, but that too seems almost accidental. Khoma repeats multiple times that a Cossack need not fear anything — relying more on that than a religious man not needing to fear anything. But in the end, he fears. Rather than being a conduit for Communist propaganda, Viy seems concerned primarily with simply being a great horror film, one with a uniquely Russian setting but a universal appeal. If you dubbed this and told me it was an Italian film from roughly the same era, I would believe you. If you told me it had been directed by Roger Corman for AIP, I would believe that as well. Every country has its tales of terror, and at the root, most of them are basically the same since most humans share a common set of primordial fears regardless of our race, nationality, or particular form of government. The dark is always dark, and it is always full of things that go bump in the night.

If Gogol’s story, and by extension this movie, has a true peer, it would be Gogol’s more-or-less contemporary (more or less), Washington Irving. Khoma and Ichabod Crane would have a lot to commiserate about with one another. The ultimate showdown between Khoma and the forces of darkness is also reflective of Ichabod Crane’s flight from the Headless Horseman. Khoma is a bit of a buffoon, and his slovenly habits get him into trouble, but he’s no villain. I’m not one to condone assault, but there is a case to be made that when a witch mounts you and flies you around like a broomstick, you have at least some justification for reacting poorly. He and his pals didn’t really do anything to provoke the witch’s wrath other than be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were tired house guests who went immediately to sleep. In the end Khoma pays for his actions by being put in an unwinnable situation, with the vengeful ghost of a witch on one side and her father’s battle-axe on the other. In between, he’s a mess of conflicted feelings that is expressed best in a scene when he more or less gives up and just breaks into a drunken, screaming dance that is part reckless glee and part utter despair. No one around him seeming to see him as anything other than a hopeless drunk and kind of shoddy religious scholar, but it is the last attempt of a doomed man to cling to life.

Although Viy is stripped of the outrageous, candy-colored spectacle of the earlier Russian fantasy films in favor of a more sinister tone, this is not a film plagued by incessant grimness. Much of it is light-hearted and fun. In fact, the power of the chilling finale comes from the fact that it hasn’t been a hopeless grind the entire time — something I wish more modern film makers (and comic book writers) could understand. There are moments of great levity and comedy, of drunken abandon and good times as befits a village full of vodka-swilling Cossacks prone to sing and dance at the drop of an ushanka. The hopelessness of the scenario is distant at first, and it seems like Khoma might even find a way out.

The shadow slowly grows, consuming the film only once we’ve come to sympathize with those in it. It makes for a much scarier, much tenser, and much more moving final reel than if the film had been all teeth-gritting, washed-out blue-tinted grimness from start to finish. Most of the job of keeping Khoma sympathetic even when he’s being a lout is done by actor Leonid Kuravlyov, who plays the hapless seminarian with a dumb but good-natured relaxation. If he was to be played by a modern personality, I would pick An Idiot Abroad‘s Karl Pilkington. Khoma is not some endlessly brooding anti-hero with a forever-furrowed brow and falsely gravel voice. He’s a dope. Not a bad guy, not a good guy, but human and relatable. Most of us have never bee a grim, stoic hate-filled avenger in the night. But just about all of us, at one time or another, have been a schmuck.

Visually, the film is a feast for the eyes. The stark Russian countryside makes for a great backdrop, and mixing it with matte paintings and sets gives the film an added eerie, surreal feel. The decrepit old church is a picture-perfect Gothic nightmare filled with menacing shadows, cobwebs, and creepy medieval religious paintings that seem to offer Khoma no support in his three nights against the Devil’s minions. When special effects are called for, directors Konstantin Ershov and Georgi Kropachyov rely on very effective practical effects that, for the most part, are pulled off wonderfully.

From the witch’s levitating coffin to the hordes of ghouls who flood into the chapel during the finale, the film trots out every beloved old trick in the book. Again I will invoke the old silent horror films, as many of the effects pioneered in those early films are put to great use here, half a century later. The viy itself is a classic man in a rubber suit but like everything else, it is executed well. The more Haxan style ghouls fill the screen, the more desaturated everything becomes, until Khoma is eventually left as the only creature with any hue other than grey, a doomed Technicolor man who has wandered into a black-and-white era Hell.

What a great film. One viewing is all it took to convince me this was one of my favorite films. Subsequent viewings have not diminished the bittersweet joy. It’s the kind of film that, when discovered, reminds me how much fun it is to be an explorer of global cult cinema. No hesitation from me in calling it a horror classic. I would put it on the level of any of the great Gothic horror films: the Universal films, Bava’s Black Sunday (with which it makes an interesting comparison) and Kill, Baby, Kill!; Margheriti’s Castle of Blood, any of the exquisite Edgar Allen Poe adaptations directed by Roger Corman, my beloved Hammer films, and especially the greats of silent-era horror. Viy deserves to be every bit as well-known and celebrated as any of those. It’s short but packed with chills, wit, and depth. It’s gorgeous to look at. It’s a thoughtful meditation on fate and faith as well as a fun tale of spooks and demons. Whether you are in Soviet Russia, southern America, or the moors of Scotland does not matter — there is a universal “campfire ghost story” appeal to Viy that transcends all else.