Viy is a most unusual movie. I’m talking about the 1967 version, of course. Filmed and produced in the USSR, it was, by many counts, the first Soviet horror film. There’s been a resurgence of interest in it because of the study of folk horror—and it’s certainly an example of that. Not really known for its plot, it’s noteworthy in its early special effects. Since it’s a story that revolves around a monk, however, it participates in religion and horror as well. Unusual for a Soviet-Era film. Set in an undefined period in the past—before electricity, in any case, and perhaps the Middle Ages—a class of seminarians is released for vacation. They’re a rowdy, unruly bunch, hardly the pious priests you see associated with orthodoxy. When three of them get lost on their way home they end up spending the night at the farm of an old woman.
The woman comes after Khoma (one of the three) that night and bewitches him. Riding him like a horse—and this is common witch lore—when she finally releases him, he beats the old woman severely. But she has turned into a beautiful young woman. Khoma returns to the seminary but is sent to say prayers over a dying young woman—one guess who it is. Between getting drunk and trying to escape, Khoma seems to guess his fate. At the compound of a wealthy merchant, the girl’s father, he learns she has died. The father insists he keep vigil for three nights, praying over her corpse. In the church scary things happen, not least her return to life.
On the third night all kinds of monsters appear after she calls on the god Viy. Viy means something like “spirit of evil.” Each night Khoma has drawn an effective magic circle around himself, which keeps the dead witch at bay. The last night the monsters make it through, with predictable results. There’s so much folklore at play here that it’s easy to see why the story by Nikolai Gogol suggested itself for a film. It was poignant to watch because it’s set in Ukraine (Gogol was a Ukrainian writer). Gogol had a tremendous influence on other writers, but isn’t as widely cited among western authors in contemporary times. The film is fairly easily found online, and an updated version was released in 2014. Even in the USSR, when horror emerged in the late sixties, it was doing so with religion, even before Rosemary’s Baby.