July 12th, 2009 15:12:00
Nikolai Gogol's short horror story VIY first appeared in 1835, based loosely on old Ukrainian folk tales of the French Saint John Cassian (ca. 360 - 435) - a monk who wandered extensively throughout Europe and the Middle East before settling in Marseille - but its legacy remains one of the most pervasive in the history of horror literature. It's easy to understand why the isolated Russian communities who shared tales such as this one would be kept awake at night, generation after generation, and it's equally understandable why the tale's exoticism appeals to Western audiences.
The story involves a group of monastery students who are travelling through the countryside on their way home during Easter break. As night draws near they get tired and ask an old woman for lodging and she reluctantly puts them up - one in the closet, one in a hut and one in the barn. Khoma, the student who will go on to become the story's main protagonist, wakes up in the middles of the night with the old woman hovering over him with glowing red eyes. Suddenly she leaps on his back and makes him gallop around the countryside like a horse, barely touching the ground, as he yells out sacramental chants (there is a similar sequence in Mikhail Bulgakov's THE MASTER AND MARGERITA, famous as the inspiration for the Rolling Stones song 'Sympathy for the Devil'). Eventually she succumbs and collapses to the ground - having turned into a beautiful young girl.
Khoma goes back to the seminary, trying to forget the whole thing. But soon a notice comes forth that the daughter of a rich Cossack - one who routinely offers financial support to the seminary - has died of a violent beating, and that her last wish was for the young seminary student Khoma to come to her village and stand watch over her corpse for three days after her death. The Cossacks have long told tales of the rich man's daughter - that she was in league with the devil, that she drank blood and stole the hair of other girls in the village. And thus begins Khoma's purgatorial ordeal: for three nights he is subjected to increasingly terrifying visitations from the witch - and from other demons including Viy, a monster so terrifying that one cannot look upon it and live.
Mario Bava's trilogy film BLACK SUNDAY (1960), starring euro-horror goddess Barbara Steele as the witch Asa, is loosely based on VIY (Bava would again turn to classic Russian literature for the 'Wurdulak' segment of BLACK SABBATH (1964), based on Tolstoy's SEM'YA VURDALAKA) although it wouldn't be until Georgi Kropachyov and Konstantin Yershov's VIY in 1967, that the story would see a proper, faithful adaptation.
Kropachyov and Yershov's film is an insanely colourful, fantastical film full of strange, bulbous monsters straight out of a Sid and Marty Krofft show (LIDSVILLE, HR PUFNSTUF) or perhaps even the Japanese folktale creatures depicted in the YOKAI MONSTERS series (1968-69). It's a wonderful example of Eastern European 60s fantasy filmmaking, and perfect viewing for children with a morbid sensibility. See a clip from it HERE. In 2006 the Russian film THE WITCH (VEDMA) was intended as a sequel, and another epic Russian production of VIY is in post-production as we speak. See a trailer for it HERE.
South Korea isn't the first country one thinks of when considering a VIY adaptation, and first-time feature director Park Jin-sung shows some cohones in tackling one of the most famous short stories in Russian literary history as his first subject. But of all the existing versions - and of those to come - his EVIL SPIRIT: VIY may stand as the most unique. In each of the meta-tinged film's triptych of stories, a production of VIY - one cinematic, one a minimalist theatrical production (not unlike Lars Von Trier's DOGVILLE), and one a characteristically Slavic puppet show - is disturbed by supernatural events mirroring the text being adapted. The same actors appear in all three stories, which creates a creepy doppelganger effect, as well as intensifying the meta-cinematic layering.
Although hardly a literal adaptation of Gogol's story, Park Jin-sung's EVIL SPIRIT: VIY is a much more interesting permutation, with its mix of arthouse and J-horror aesthetics (in fact, the Witch from Kropachyov and Yershov's film is not a far cry from the mythological Japanese long-haired ghosts). The cultural convergence alone is reason enough to have one's curiosity tweaked, and I'm sure Gogol would be pleased to know that his story was not only crossing borders, but boundaries as well.
- Kier-La Janisse
EVIL SPIRIT: VIY enjoys its North American Premiere Sunday July 12 at 7:00pm, and screens again at 7:00pm on Monday July 13th - both screenings in the Salle JA de Seve.
Full film details, trailer etc on the film page HERE.