Viy (1967)

Rating: B-

Dir: Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov
Star: Leonid Kuravlyov, Natalya Varley, Alexei Glazyrin, Vadim Zakharchenko

For a film which is only 77 minutes long, this takes a bit of time to get going. The first 15 minutes concern a trio of trainee Russian priests, on their way home at the end of term. Getting lost they find shelter in an old woman’s house, only for one of them, Khoma Brutus (Kuravlyov) to find out she’s a witch. Beating her enthusiastically, the crone transforms into a beautiful young woman, and Khoma runs off. Back at the seminary, he’s ordered by the rector to attend Pannochka (Varley), the seriously ill daughter of a rich benefactor: she asked for Khoma by name. Arriving there, he finds she just passed away… and is apparently the witch he bludgeoned to death.

It takes another 15 minutes of light comedy and heavy drinking to reach this key point. Though I begins to see why the Soviet authorities allowed this, the first horror film made under their regime – because it spends a lot of time not exactly depicting the clerical class in a sober, shining light. Anyway, Khoma is ordered to spend three nights in the chapel praying over Pannochka’s corpse. After a funeral ceremony and wake take us psst the half-way point, this is where things finally kick off, as he’s locked in for the duration. It’s not long before the corpse comes back to life, intent on taking revenge on Khoma for his assault, and willing to use all her witchy powers to make him pay.

Of course, he can’t exactly tell anyone, since it would lead to awkward questions, possibly revealing Khoma as the cause of her death. Each night, the trauma he has to endure gets worse. On the second night, the coffin itself flies around the chapel, trying to break into the protective circle Khomas has drawn, before cursing him. And on the third night – when the apprentice priest has basically been forced into the chapel, after a failed attempt to run away – Pannochka calls in the big occult guns. Their battles are all depicted with limited, yet generally quite effective, special effects, and the film is quite restrained in its music, making effective use of silence and ambient sound.

You can’t help feeling for Khoma, who can hardly be blamed for his actions, and gradually seems to get braver. By the third night, he’s basically yelling, “Come and have a go, if you think you’re hard enough” at the flood of spectral attackers. That might be a mistake, especially after Pannochka calls in the titular demon. That final night is a lot of fun to watch, and recovers an awful lot of the goodwill squandered by the film in its opening half-hour. There’d be a fun drinking game here, to take a swig every time anyone in the movie drinks. But it’s probably only one I’d recommend from a survival perspective, if you’re of Russian heritage and have the strongly fortified liver to go with it.