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Horror as Folk: Viy and Even More Pastoral Folk Horror

Last time, we discussed the similarities between Leptirica and Viy – tonight, we’re going to talk about the real thing! Adapted from a story by Nikolai Gogol, Viy is considered the first Russian horror film of the Soviet era. It’s also one of the greatest films of its type ever made. Today we explore the folk horror of Viy.

Before I started this column, I had seen only three of the films in All the Haunts Be Ours, the folk horror boxed set from Severin. Viy was one of those three – the best one. And honestly, if it’s not the best film in this entire boxed set, then I’ve got a truly amazing surprise waiting for me in here somewhere.

If I were going through the movies in this set strictly in the order that it presents them, we’d actually be talking about Witchhammer now. Viy and Witchhammer share a disc, though the latter is actually listed first on it, even though it was released in 1970, and Viy came out in 1967. I decided to upend the order a bit in part because this is October, and Viy is a perfect Halloween movie – and much better for the season than Witchhammer – but also because of the similarities between Viy and our last film.

The Genius of Viy

There are two kinds of people in the world: People who think that Viy is brilliant when it’s being spooky and boring the rest of the time, and those who recognize that it is a great pastoral comedy that also happens to be one of the best spooky movies ever made. (If there is a third kind of person, one who fails to recognize Viy’s genius in either sphere, I don’t want to meet them.)

The last 20 minutes or so of this brief film, especially, are legendary. Almost anyone active in horror circles has seen them, or at least seen shots from them. And they remain rightly iconic, losing none of their magic in the more than half-century that separates them from us. In fact, though it remains shamefully underseen, Viy itself is a legendary picture, adapted from equally legendary source material.

While we may not recognize it as readily as we do tales like Dracula or Frankenstein, Viy centers around one of the classic horror plots: the night with a corpse. In this case, it’s three nights, as a seminary student is obliged to say prayers over the body of a girl, even though he knows that she’s a witch, and each night she rises to torment him.

The scenes of prayer and haunting are phenomenal, the film’s stylistic centerpieces, and they’re justly famous. But the scenes that break them up are just as important. Comedic scenes, that show the seminarian drinking and dancing, singing and moping and trying to escape his unpleasant situation. In fact, we’re probably more than halfway through the film before the first of the three nights of prayer takes place.

Viy and Pastoral Comedy

If the spooky scenes are the heart of the film, then these moments of pastoral comedy are its flesh and blood. And, at least for my money, they work like gangbusters, making the film warm and funny and human and strange even when nothing supernatural is happening. Also, if you like shots of farm animals, this is your picture. Just as the strength of Leptirica was its depiction of the life of its people, Viy similarly loves the people its story is about.

Viy is a colossal creation of the imagination of simple folk,” states a quote, purportedly from Gogol himself, which opens the film. And that’s also a pretty good explanation of what makes Viy not only so brilliant but also so integral to the history of folk horror – more so than most others, it feels like a real folk tale, something that comes from the people it concerns, rather than an outsider’s view.

Gogol even makes some efforts to establish the story’s folkloric bonafides in an author’s note, although most sources believe that at least the character of Viy itself, which he claims is the name given to the “chief of the gnomes,” is in fact Gogol’s own creation. Whether the story is truly a folktale told to Gogol or something that he made up whole cloth, however, he has the same gift that American author Manly Wade Wellman would later demonstrate: the ability to weave a story that feels like a genuine folktale, whether it is or not.

And the movie retains that feeling, which is perhaps part of why the story has been told and retold as many times as it has. Earlier I mentioned stories like Dracula and Frankenstein, and Viy has nearly as many cinematic adaptations as those do. Indeed, this isn’t even the first one. It was first adapted into a lost 1909 silent film by Vasily Goncharov, while later versions were released in 1990, 1996, 2014, and more. And those are just the official adaptations. Mario Bava’s Black Sunday has also been considered a loose retelling of the tale.

Each take is often dramatically different, with only that central “three nights with a corpse” premise to hold them together, just as retellings of Dracula are all over the map with only “rich guy is a vampire” in common. But, while I haven’t seen anywhere near all of them, the 1967 version is almost certainly the best, and it’s the scenes of warm humanity, as much as the blue-painted fiends, that make it so.