Friday 21 April 2017

We Don't Go Back #45: Viy (1967)

I'm not terribly up on Russian literature, but the one partial exception to that regrettable blindspot is Nikolai Gogol, of whom over the years I've read a handful of things: Dead Souls, The Government Inspector, and a short story called “Viy”.
The last of those I have in this battered paperback collection of vampire stories, where it sticks out as ill suited for the company in which it finds itself (as in, it's of a higher literary standard). Gogol is all about the mischief as a writer. He's got a keen eye for the absurd and his protagonists tend to be likeable tricksters, conmen, ne'er-do-wells. Gogol reminds me a little of Poe. They have the same sharp satirical eye, a similar pleasure in the grotesque and absurd, and a similar sense of humour, and a fondness for alcoholics and lowlifes. “Viy” is funny and strange, and for all of its faintly Gothic trappings, and its claims to be nothing more than a folktale, charming in the way it mixes satire, comedy and horror. Which is also the case with Konstantin Ershov and Georgiy Kropachyov's 1967 film adaptation.

The film Viy is entirely faithful to its source material, both in content and tone. It neither deviates nor subtracts from the story, having well-founded faith that it's enough to carry the film. Its hero is a young seminarian, Khoma Brut (Leonid Kuravlyov), who, like all the other divinity students, spends his time carousing and making a nuisance of himself. Lost in the countryside, Khoma has a terrible experience at the hands of a witch, who rides on his back through the sky. Somehow Khoma turns the tables, whacking the hag with her own broom. The unconscious witch turns into a beautiful young woman (Natalya Varley), and Khoma runs home in terror. But the next day, a group of Cossacks come to the seminary seeking him out. The daughter of a Cossack chief (a sotnik) is breathing her last; she has requested Khoma be the one to pray for the repose of her soul over three nights.
I wish God would let you smoke a pipe in church...
Puzzled but really not very keen on this whole affair, Khoma is nonetheless brought by friendly force to the sotnik and his now-deceased daughter – who is of course the witch. By night, the young man, locked in a run down church with the girl's body, has to pray. The vengeful witch rises, and Khoma finds himself in spiritual battle against the undead witch. By day he tries to get away, without much luck, because he's too drunk half the time to have a clue what he's doing.

There's a certain sort of character that only works in comedy, and Khoma fits into the mould. He's selfish, lazy, dishonest and a bit thick, but for all that he's pretty likeable and Kuravlyov carries the film. You warm to him.
A curse. A curse.
It's all terribly jolly, but the levity isn't all there is. It's made with a tremendous amount of care. Every shot is a painting in light, shadow and colour; and there are some tracking shots that put films made forty or more years later to shame. Aside from some back projection, most of the effects are practical and carry the immediacy and the wonder of stage magic – a coffin flies around the room; Khoma opens a book and a bird flies out.

The sets and costumes are lovingly crafted, and the church, full of decaying icons and rotting furniture is lovingly decorated. And, oh my, when the demons come out! It's a treat. And while the techniques Ershov and Kropachyov use were being used in Hollywood twenty years previously, they are so confidently, effectively done that the film is a work of magic. I felt like I was nine again watching it (and I'm going to show it to my son as soon as I can, because I think he'll dig it). It's a long time since a film had that effect on me.

The Soviet film censor didn't seem to have a problem with Viy. I think that's partly because if you look at Soviet film, the influence of the censor seems to be overstated, and partly because the text has plenty in it that celebrates the salt-of-the-earth peasant, and presents the Russian Orthodox church as hypocritical and corrupt. Gogol, writing in 1835, clearly didn't have a lot of time for the Orthodox church. Were priests in training really so dissolute? I don't actually know, but the way Gogol writes it and the way it's presented in the film suggests that it's a stereotype, a thing you expect. The film, as the short story, pretends to be a folk tale, but it's really a comment on folk tales, and on folk customs.
Come demons and succubi...
Gogol's introductory note, quoted in part over the opening credits of the film, goes like this: 
Viy is a colossal creation of of the popular imagination. It is the name among the Little Russians of the chief of the gnomes, whose eyelids droop down to the earth. This whole story is a peasant tradition, I was unwulling to change it, and I tell it almost in the simple words in which I heard it.
Who is he trying to kid? It's a sharp satire and a tightly constructed, funny story. Gogol has more influence in this than you think (by the way, "Little Russians" is an old-fashioned way of saying Ukrainians; the Cossacks might be the romanticised Russian heroes, but they're actually Ukrainian. But you probably know all this).
Sacred circle, sacred circle, protect me, sacred circle!
And it's a great folk horror. No one knows how you deal with a witch, really, and the church is ill-equipped, and if you're stuck in the Russian countryside and a grim-faced  baboushka decides to ride you, you're pretty much stuffed, whatever you do next. There's an inevitability to what happens to Khoma, a sense that the universe really has it in for the poor guy (don't feel too sorry for him, though, he's a self-centred jerk). 
A Cossack isn't scared of anything.
Viy could be set at any time between about 1400 and 1900; the Russian peasant experience didn't really change that whole time, and I suppose that when unchanging poverty – and actual serfdom – is the way of things, everything that happens to you is inevitable, but the Cossacks, the romantic heroes of Russian folklore, face their fate with a certain bravado, a damn-it-all-give-me-another-Vodka attitude. Except on Gogol's story it's all a front. Khoma might be training to be a country priest, but what little faith he has (and it frankly isn't much) is of no help to him. Fate has more influence. He keeps saying that a Cossack isn't afraid of anything. He's lying. He's terrified. The twin pillars of Little Russia count for nothing in Gogol's story.

When I started this project, all I ever meant to do was clear a backlog off my film shelf. But as it's gone on, I've discovered some real gems that I never would have seen otherwise, and which I've found myself responding to. Viy is a thing of wonder and charm. Go track down a copy. You won't regret it.