It’s Spring Break at the seminary! The wannabe monks are being set free for a spell; this means that they’ll proceed to prank the locals and (lightly) sexually harass whatever women come within reach.
Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov), one of these prospective monks, finds that he and his friends have wandered too far away from town when night falls to find a decent bed. A farmhouse inhabited by an old woman provides some shelter, but he’s forced to bed down for the night in the barn. Eh, presumably he’s had worse accommodations. His rest is interrupted by a visit from the old woman, who it appears wants to do a little sexual harassment of her own. Well, Khoma isn’t having any of it, but she won’t take no for an answer. She turns out to be a witch, and casts a spell of him that stiffens him, allowing her to ride him around all night long. Wait, get your mind out of the gutter. What were you thinking? She forces him to carry her on his shoulders while flying around the countryside.
After finally landing, Khoma is freed from her spell. He promptly whacks the magic out of her, revealing her true form as a lovely young woman (Natalya Varley). Why she needed to disguise herself to get men to do her bidding is left unsaid. Khoma flees the scene, leaving the unconscious woman behind.
Little does he know his problems have just begun.
Soviet-era Eastern Bloc cinema, at least what comes over to the US, is generally plodding and pedantic, intended to promote the superiority of Communism over the evils of Western Capitalism. Some of the science fiction that was produced according to party doctrine was at least acceptable, but it’s amazing to find a horror fantasy from that era that is actually watchable. It helps when the story comes from the master, Nikolai Gogol, and the visual design and effects were the work of Aleksandr Ptushko, one of the foremost directors of the Russian fairy tale films that were being produced in the 1950s behind the Iron Curtain.
Back at the seminary, Khoma finds that the Abbot wants to see him Right Away. Seems a delegation from a local noble has shown up, demanding that Khoma accompany them back to the noble’s estate. His daughter is on her deathbed, and has specifically requested Khoma to come and minister to her spiritual needs in her final days. The Abbot can’t understand why they want his worst student; nor can the noble understand why she has specifically requested someone she’s never met. But her wishes are not to be denied, so Khoma is press ganged into service.
Alas, they arrive back at the manor too late – the daughter has died. But she left some final wishes: that Khoma keep vigil over her body in the manor’s old, decrepit, and spooky church for the three nights before her burial. Need I mention that the daughter is that same young woman who was the witch that Khoma beat the crap out of in the first act? And that she’s planning revenge from beyond the grave? And it will take all of Khoma’s minimal faith if he’s to have any chance of getting out of this alive?
That something with such strong religious overtones could get made in the militant atheistic Soviet Union shouldn’t be surprising after even the most cursory of glances. Khoma and his friends are slackers, and the movie isn’t much more than a fairy tale anyway. A priest or other religious figure doing single combat with the Forces of Evil is an old and common trope that shouldn’t offend any government official. It’s all based off of traditional folklore anyway; most people would know the gist of the story already.
The three nights of battle are the highlight of the movie. Ptushko uses every camera trick he can conjure up (and you don’t need subtitles or even dialogue to follow the action). Things fly through the air; demonic arms slip through cracks in the walls. Off-kilter camera angles add to the spooky atmosphere. If there is any flaw in the movie, it’s that the final “boss” monster – a big guy in a big rubber suit – is a bit of a letdown after all the amazing effects work we’ve seen so far.
Coming in at a shade over an hour and a quarter long, Viy moves along at a brisk pace. It’s well worth your time – even if it’s just to see what sort of scary movies can be made when coming from a completely different cultural tradition.