Color, 1967, 76 mins. 35 secs.
Directed by Georgi Kropachyov & Konstantin Yershov
Starring Leonid Kuralev, Natalya Varley, Aleksei Glazyrin
Severin Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), IVC (Blu-ray & DVD) (Japan R0 HD/NTSC), Ruscico (DVD) (Russia R0 NTSC), HB Films (DVD) (UK R0 PAL)
This unique, haunting fusion of provincial fantasy and full-blooded horror has won over more than a handful admirers in the West, even without acceptable English language versions available for decades, thanks to its striking special effects sequences engineered by the great Aleksandr Ptushko (The Day the Earth Froze). His famous fairy tale aesthetics come into much darker play here, as he tackles the fantastic fiends of Nikolai Gogol's popular short story, "The Vij" (adapted much more loosely in Mario Bava's Black Sunday).
The simple storyline concerns a young, cocky lad named Khoma Brut (Leonid Kuralev), a seminary student in training for the priesthood, who loses his way into a dark forest and separates from his companions on the road. There he encounters a witch who carries him aloft for a dark moonlit adventure from which he barely escapes with his life. At a nearby village, the novice is asked by the locals to stay in their eerie wooden church for three nights to recite holy verses over the body of the wealthiest citizen's daughter (Natalya Varley); unfortunately, as he discovers while trapped for the first night in the church, the dead girl is also the witch... who rises from her coffin, stopped only by a holy circle of chalk drawn around the frightened seminarian. The villagers refuse to believe him the next day and force him to return for two more nights of unbridled horror, during which the sorceress unleashes all of the powers of the underworld to break the magic circle.
With its compact running time, this film never overstays its welcome and wisely leaves the viewer wanting more. The second and third witch attacks are among Ptushko's most effective work as the witch rides her coffin in circles through the air, monsters pour from the walls, giant hands erupt from the floor, and the lumbering Viy himself makes an appearance for the grand finale. The rest of the film is a skillful example of the balance between wonder and dread, with religion playing a prominent role from the opening moments to the final, ironic closing lines.
Thanks to Japanese laserdisc, Viy (or The Vij, depending on the print) became something of a gray market video staple, but the Ruscico DVD from 2001 (imported for a while in a limited edition from Image Entertainment in the U.S.) brought it to a much wider audience thanks to a restored video presentation as well as multiple language options including soundtracks in Russian, English, and French (all remixed into 5.1, with passable if unnecessary results) and subtitles in English, French, Dutch, Japanese, German, Russian, and so on. The atmospheric animated menus begin in Russian but can be changed into English by clicking to the left.
The package is decked out with a nice array of extras including the theatrical trailer (in English, oddly enough) and a half hour documentary (in Russian with optional subtitles) about Gogol leading the pack, followed by three marvelous silent horror short films: "Satan Exultant" (19m30s), "The Queen of Spades" (16m30s), and the jarring "The Portrait" (7m53s), which is nearly worth the price tag by itself.
The first Blu-ray edition of this film appeared in Japan in 2016, albeit in Russian with optional Japanese subtitles and no extras. Much more satisfying is the 2019 edition from Severin Films, available as separate Blu-ray and DVD editions as well as The Viy Bundle. The image quality is excellent and reflects the steely, unearthly color scheme nicely with some startling bursts of primary colors where it counts, along with delicate shades of ashy gray and blue throughout. The Russian and English tracks are included, this time in a more authentic DTS-HD MA mono presentation, both sounding perfectly fine; optional English subtitles are provided (either translated or, for the dub track, SDH). It's also worth noting that the HD transfer runs 76 minutes versus the 72 of the DVD, which came from an uncorrected PAL source and thus ran a bit faster. The three short films have been ported over here along with the trailer, while the new "Viy the Vampire" (22m57s) features director Richard Stanley (Hardware) delivering an entertaining and passionate dissertation on the history of vampirism and the Cossack folklore that informed Gogol's story, though the vampire angle only ties in with this witch and demon-themed film in the loosest sense. He also dissects the title in welcome detail, pointing out its status as a respectful term rather than a proper name in the traditional sense, and mentions his own attempt to make a modern Bosnia-set version of the tale that sounds pretty wild. In "From the Woods to the Cosmos" (34m43s), Soviet film historian John Leman Riley takes a broader look at the history of supernatural tales from page to screen including the works of Gogol and early silent efforts through the impact of technology on filmmaking that could depict more ambitious portrayals of everything from monsters to outer space adventures via directors like Alexander Rou.
Updated review on December 22, 2019.