Three Nights of Death: Folk Horror in Mosfilm’s ‘Viy’
The popularity of The Babadook, The VVitch, and Midsommar in the past five years tells us that folk horror films still interest both creators and consumers. I say still because this horror subgenre dates back to the industry’s dawn with The Phantom Carriage and Nosferatu. It has cropped up in every decade since then, and horror fans recognize the previous examples – The Wicker Man, The Blair Witch Project, and numerous others – as classics. They transcend their era and influence modern filmmakers like Robert Eggers and Ari Aster.
However, another exemplar of this subgenre languishes in obscurity: Konstantin Ershov and Georgiy Kropachyov’s Viy (1967). Also known as Spirit of Evil, the movie portrays a vast, absurd, and often tragic world in the spirit of traditional “fairy tale” storytelling. Yet Viy also boasts vintage special effects and an acute critique of its society’s patriarchal narrative.
The History of ‘Viy’
Based on the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol’s short story of the same name, the film opens in 19th-century Kiev. Dismissed for summer holiday, the dissolute-but-cheerful seminary student Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov) travels with two friends into the countryside. When night falls, they receive shelter from an old peasant woman. Thereafter, she pounces on and bewitches Khoma, “riding” him as he flies across the night’s sky.
Khoma prays for protection and the two land in a field, whereupon he fatally beats the crone. She turns into a beautiful maiden (Natalya Varley), and Khoma flees. Back in Kiev, he learns that a rich landowner’s daughter made a dying wish for him to deliver her last prayers. Khoma travels to the landowner’s village and discovers that the deceased maiden is his “peasant” witch. And to keep his daughter’s final wishes, the landowner forces Khoma to pray over her corpse the following three nights – alone, in the village chapel.
While not mainstream, Viy has cult credentials. Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB, and Letterboxd users chatter about it; even Certified Forgotten co-founder Matthew Monagle gave it a glowing review in Brooklyn Magazine. Indiewire named it #89 in its “Greatest Horror Movies of All-Time” countdown. It also holds enviable provenance and peerage. Not only the first horror film made in the USSR, but one produced by Mosfilm Studios, the same behind numerous Andrei Tarkovsky films as well as Elem Klimov’s Come and See.
Finally, Viy comes from the same Gogol story that served as a basis for Mario Bava’s epochal Black Sunday (1960). Yet Bava’s film takes more cues from British horror and Hammer Studios’ Dracula than Gogol’s story, and its protagonists uphold patriarchal conventions of social hierarchy and gender roles. Viy sticks closer to Gogol’s text and demonstrates that men never controlled these things in the first place.
Russian Folklore in Film
Viy focuses on laboring class characters, so its folklore comes from the mouths of Cossack footmen, the impoverished, and farmers. This fits historical trends: literary scholars tell us that folktales originated with “common” people rather than high society. Illiterate laborers had limited knowledge of their world, so their stories fulfilled an explanatory function. Since cruelty and tragedy loomed over their lives, they populated laborers’ legends and horrors too.
Gogol cast his tale as “a specimen of such folk-lore” in its epigraph, which the film paraphrases into a voiceover. “Viy is a colossal creation of the imagination of simple folk,” a voice shares. “The tale itself is a purely popular legend. And I tell it without change, in all its simplicity, exactly as I heard it told to me.”
Despite this claim, modern scholarship indicates that Gogol fabricated many of his tale’s folkloric elements. Nevertheless, his novella and the film do feature a dominant figure in cultures worldwide: a witch. She’s a disturbing symbol to any society dominated by a patriarchal ruling narrative since she can exist therein, unbound to its rules. Viy’s witch thus horrifies and fascinates the laborers. The Cossack footmen not only suspect the landowner’s daughter but gossip about her when out of their master’s earshot.
They tell Khoma how she bewitched a local hunter, “a man with a heart of gold.” According to the men, after he fell “hopelessly in love” with her, she climbed onto his back and rode him away. So even the best of these laboring men capitulate to the demonic “other” – alone, their patriarchy’s morals cannot withstand her.
The image of a maiden “riding” a laborer may frighten and amuse us – it’s dreamlike and senseless to our rational logic. But fears aren’t rational. No inherent danger exists in darkness, but it frightens many people because of what it may contain. And this ambiguity epitomizes folk horror. It compels commoners to live in squalor and ignorance. Though their society’s administrators – like the seminary rector and the rich landowner in Viy – hoard goods, they also offer protection.
These circumstances also make Khoma an ironic administrative agent: he lacks their moral knowledge and rectitude. For instance, when a footman demands to know what seminarians are taught, Khoma evades his question. After the landowner suggests that he leads the life of a saint, Khoma protests, “you can’t know what you’re saying. . . . I slipped over to the butcher’s wife right in the middle of Lent!”
The Spectacle of the Undead
While Viy critiques social conformity, it shows greater concern in narratives that afford such consent. This scrutiny intensifies during Khoma’s three nights in the chapel, when he depends upon patriarchal blessings for protection against the witch. These nightmarish sequences stand out as Viy’s best and strangest. Director Kropachyov’s knowledge of production design comes to the fore: the besmeared and cobwebbed church, riddled with images of a frowning deity, contains the action.
Rather than a house of light and worship, it appears a sepulcher with a jet-black coffin at its center. After the Cossack footmen lock him in on the first night, Khoma tells the corpse, “I have prayers to protect me. . . . no demon can possibly harm me.” He lights the chapel with candles, reads a few prayers, and takes a bit of snuff. Then the witch rises.
The sight is uncanny: a beautiful girl – pale with death, wearing a flower wreath and a white shift – sits up slowly with arms extended. She removes her shroud, steps out of her coffin, and floats to the floor. Then, seeking Khoma, she walks blindly through the church, and he draws a “sacred circle” with chalk and shouts prayers, enacting a transparent and impenetrable barrier.
Despite its visual absurdity, this supernatural aegis fits the film’s logic – faith in authority preserves Khoma. The witch cannot upend this blessing (alone). Then a cock crows and she – with eerie, shaking fury – lies back down in her coffin. Although the “night” runs no more than five minutes, the time displacement fits Viy’s fairy-tale logic. Afterwards, the dazed seminarian represses his fear and conceals the otherworldly protection he received.
Not that the seminarian feels renewed faith. On the contrary, Khoma indulges in vodka throughout the following day and begins his second night exhausted and terrified. After he stumbles through an opening prayer, the witch’s coffin rises and flies its occupant around the room. This sequence pushes the film’s absurdity to a fault, though it’s unnerving to hear the witch cry out, “Khoma!”
Hysterical, he conjures the sacred-circle protection, which the witch’s coffin cannot break through. The cock soon crows, but the witch curses Khoma as she lies down, blurring his vision and turning his hair white. His task thus robs him of youth and innocence, and his reticence cracks. The following day, he tries to escape and begs the landowner for release, saying that his daughter has been bewitched by Satan. Of course, Khoma is sent back for the final night.
This scene constitutes Viy’s go-for-broke finale: the patriarchy’s nightmare comes to horrifying life. First, Khoma draws his sacred circle and drunkenly prays, “Let me not yield to the temptations of the evil one.” Then the witch arises and summons fiends: disembodied hands reach out from the walls, skeletons chatter in the shadows, creatures peek around corners, and demonic humanoids creep into the chapel. A demon wind shrieks; bats flutter through the room; the witch laughs and commands her demons forward.
She finally cries, “Bring the great god Viy! I summon Viy!” and out stomps a great rock-like demon. Khoma tells himself not to look in the creature’s eyes or best lost – yet the cock then crows, and the seminarian smiles and turns. “I see him!” Viy declares, setting the demons on Khoma. Before the cock crows again, our hero lies dead on the floor.
It’s a bleak end to a movie with an awful lot of absurd comedy – a blend that also characterizes fairy-tale storytelling. The finale suggests that, whether one lives as part of or in opposition to it, this patriarchal narrative provides little comfort. But just like other great folk horror movies, Viy illustrates how storytelling helps people find their way through their world.
In 19th-century Russia, most folks’ lives were short, brutish, and uneventful. They held senseless tragedies: fathers buried daughters, good people passed without reason, and peasants packed into shacks while administrators lived in palaces. Surrealistic, absurd stories let them suggest why. To this day, folk horror allows us to create meaning for suffering – which, perhaps, is the first step to overcoming it.