Monday, July 26, 2021



Viy Poster

(1967) Directed by: Konstantin Ershov and Georgiy Kropachyov; Written by Konstantin Ershov, Georgiy Kropachyov and Aleksandr Ptushko; Based on the story by Nikolay Gogol; Starring: Leonid Kuravlyov, Natalya Varley, Aleksey Glazyrin, Vadim Zakharchenko and Pyotr Vesklyarov; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Shudder 

Rating: **** 

“A curse upon you! With the wings of a bat! With the blood of a serpent! I shall curse you!”

 Pannochka (Natalya Varley) 

Note: The following review is an expanded version of a capsule review from December 2016. 

Demons in the chapel

Although fantasy and science fiction films enjoyed their place in the former Soviet Union, the horror genre didn’t fare nearly as well. Viy (aka: Viy or Spirit of Evil) is often touted as the “first” Soviet-era horror film (admittedly, what does and doesn’t constitute horror is up for debate), and in the absence of other salient examples, it’s difficult to dispute this claim. While it’s clear that subjects of a supernatural bias were discouraged, I’m not quite ready to accept that this was the only horror movie to be released between 1922 and 1967. Nevertheless, evidence to the contrary has yet to surface. Viy was based on an 1835 short story by noted Ukrainian author Nikolai Gogol. The original novella professes to be derived from Ukrainian folklore, but whether or not it was entirely concocted by Gogol remains open for debate.

Khoma and the witch

In the opening scene, set in a Kiev-based seminary, the stern rector dismisses his students for a holiday break. Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov) and two of his fellow students promptly take to the countryside for some fun and mischief (much to the chagrin of their schoolmaster). Before long, tired and weary from their travels, they seek shelter at in a farmhouse owned by a withered old woman (Nikolay Kutuzov). She reluctantly puts them up for the night, insisting that Khoma sleep in the stable. Things take a bizarre turn when she singles him out, hopping upon his shoulders and revealing her true nature as a witch. After soaring over the fields, they return to earth. He beats her with a stick, leaving her for dead, but a second glance reveals not an old crone, but a young woman. Puzzled and disturbed, Khoma returns to the rectory, only to learn that the headmaster has received an unusual request – he alone must hold a three-day prayer vigil for a wealthy Cossack’s recently deceased daughter, Pannochka. Now, Khoma and the witch are inextricably entwined.

Khoma and Pannochka

Leonid Kuravlyov is a hoot in his manically comic performance as our perpetually bewildered protagonist, Khoma.* Far from the most diligent student at his rectory, he’s more concerned with food, drink and revelry than spiritual enlightenment. He tries to do everything he can to weasel out of his obligation to the Cossack patriarch, but the promise of a thousand gold pieces or a thousand lashes (if he disobeys) sways his decision. Each successive day of the vigil takes its toll on Khoma, while he’s locked away in the chapel, repeating his mantra, “A Cossack is never afraid of anything.” Meanwhile, his mental and physical state continue to erode as he endeavors to keep the evil spirits at bay and contend with a corpse that refuses to remain still. 

* Khoma’s tentative demeanor reminded me of another literary character, Ichabod Crane. Although I’m not sure if Gogol was aware of Washington Irving’s story (published in 1820), its main character could be a spiritual predecessor.


All eyes are on Natalya Varley as the not-so-deceased, Pannochka. With her long dark hair and pallid complexion, she resembles the Iron Curtain’s answer to Luna (from Mark of the Vampire) or Morticia Addams. She speaks very few lines, but makes them sting, proving, hell hath no fury like a witch scorned. Varley takes charge in every scene she’s in, dominating the scenery with her frenzied, hypnotic stare.

Demons in the chapel

The visuals of Viy benefited greatly through the efforts of fantasy filmmaker Aleksandr Ptushko (Sadko, Ilya Muromets), who provided the art direction and effects. Gogol’s story was vague in the details about Khoma’s climactic confrontation with evil. The filmmakers, however, gleefully fill in the blanks, delivering some genuinely unnerving moments when the forces of darkness are unleashed in the chapel. It’s a dazzling display, brought to life through dynamic, swirling POV shots, as all manner of things that go bump in the night descend upon poor Khoma. Demons scuttle down the walls and skeletons dance about, culminating in the appearance of Viy, a stocky demon with giant eyelids, concealing a gaze that can kill. The final, visually dense sequence, is a treat for the eyes, providing more than can be taken in with one viewing.

Pannochka Riding a Coffin

Viy enchants and entertains, with its tantalizing mixture of comedy and the macabre. This faithful adaptation of Gogol’s story must have been a tough sell for the staid sensibilities of the prevailing regime, but it’s a testament to the persistence of Ptushko and co-directors Konstantin Ershov and Georgiy Kropachyov that their vision made it to Soviet theaters. Whether it was truly the first horror film or not, Viy remains an important landmark in Russian cinematic history, when films of the uncanny were such a scarce commodity. Its robust imagery and themes make it a force to be reckoned with, and no discerning fan of horror should consider his or her education complete without giving this a look. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Short Take: Sadko


Sadko Poster

(1953) Directed by Aleksandr Ptushko; Written by Konstantin Isaev; Based on the opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov; Starring: Sergey Stolyarov, Alla Larionova, Ninel Myshkova, B. Surovtsevand, Mikhail Troyanovskiy and Nadir Malishevsky; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“The wise man boasts of his father and mother. The fool boasts of his young wife, the merchant boasts of his fat purse, and the rich man of his gold…” – Sadko (Sergey Stolyarov)


Many Westerners were introduced to Sadko in the early ‘60s (a decade after its release in Europe), under the misleading title, The Magic Voyage of Sinbad.* Yet another generation of viewers became aware of the film when it received the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment in the early ‘90s. While elements of the lavish production still managed to shine through, it was easy (for those who only had the chance to watch a distillation of an already compromised film) to get the impression that this wasn’t a quality movie. In fact, the Soviet production had nothing to do with Sinbad or his adventures. Instead, Sadko originated from a Russian folktale (an Onega epic story), as well as the eponymous 1898 opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

* Fun Fact #1: When Sadko was adapted for American audiences, it was re-written, re-edited, and dubbed, under the supervision of a young Francis Ford Coppola (working for American International Pictures).

Sadko in Novgorod

The good-natured troubadour Sadko arrives in the walled city of Novgorod,* armed only with his psaltery (a traditional stringed instrument). He barely sets foot off the boat before he’s created trouble for himself with a group of merchants, calling them out for being obsessed with their wealth and possessions. Although he wins his wager with the merchants, his attempt to redistribute the wealth among Novgorod’s impoverished residents backfires. Realizing that good intentions only bring him so far, our idealistic protagonist assembles a crew, setting sail for parts unknown (leaving behind his one true love, Lyubava, played by Alla Larionova), on a quest to find the fabled Bird of Happiness. Along the way, he’ll encounter hostile Vikings, a capricious Indian prince, and the jovial King of the Sea.

* Fun Fact #2: The full-scale walls, which were reportedly “dozens of meters high,” were constructed in Pestovo, outside of Moscow.

Sadko and Gold-Finned Fish

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Sadko (whose name means “sonorous”), played by Sergey Stolyarov,* is that he fails more than he succeeds, making him instantly more relatable than most epic heroes. While his exploits appear larger than life, his fallibility keeps him grounded. He possesses many admirable traits (charismatic, good-hearted), but he’s also headstrong and impulsive. After capturing a valuable golden-finned fish, he squanders his new fortune on a small segment of the poor before discovering he can’t help everyone. Despite this setback, he never loses his resolve to bring happiness to the people. Stolyarov’s performance walks the line between youthful arrogance and uncertainty, ultimately winning us over through his character’s inherent vulnerability.

* Another Fun Fact #3: According to Stolyarov’s son, Kirill, the actor grew up as an orphan, and once worked as a train engineer.  


The unsung hero of the film is unquestionably the sea princess Vasya (Ninel Myshkova), who gets Sadko out of a jam on several occasions. If not for her, his head (quite literally) would have been on the chopping block. Despite her efforts to win Sadko’s heart, however, Vasya’s love remains unrequited. As a final selfless gesture, she conspires to whisk him away from her watery home, which rankles the feathers of her parents, the endlessly bickering King of the Sea and his wife (Stepan Kayukov and Olga Viklandt).

The Undersea Kingdom

Anyone acquainted with The Wizard of Oz won’t be surprised by Sadko’s lesson about searching for happiness. Then again, as with many fairytale stories, it’s the journey, not the conclusion that we’ve come to experience and embrace. Among its many charms are the imaginative sets, designed by Evgeniy Svidetelev, and colorful costumes created by Olga Kruchinina of the Bolshoi Opera. Some visual highlights include the Indian city (shot in Calcutta), complete with elephants and a bustling bazaar, along with a suitably cavernous and ornate palace set. The undersea kingdom is a fanciful depiction, worthy of a storybook, and the soft focus in many of the scenes only adds to the dreamlike feel of the film. Director Aleksandr Ptushko and crew’s unabashedly theatrical approach suits the material perfectly, immersing us in an unreal world where illusions of reality need not apply. It’s a timeless, enchanting fairy tale classic that deserves to be re-discovered and re-evaluated on its own terms.