Witches, flying coffins, drunk priests, and a film-making style that many say went on to influence Sam Raimi and many other horror greats! This doesn’t quite sound like stuffy Soviet cinema from the 1960s, but it is!
From the early days of the revolution, communist leaders in Russia realized the importance of the film industry. It was seen as the perfect means by which propaganda could be spread to illiterate masses. Its importance was so great that in 1919 the Communist government opened its first film school (long before America). However, in the early days of the soviet film industry, around 1922, there was very little money or resources. And after World War I and the Russian Revolution, there was no infrastructure to support the theaters since electricity and fuel were in short supply. In addition to this, most artists and actors were viewed as loyal to the Czar, and therefore had fled Russia once the communist government had taken over. Most of what could be produced were short propaganda pieces and newsreels. Later these newsreels would be pieced together into documentaries.
These documentaries and shorts fueled, the film industry and reopened theaters. And soon the demand for narrative features grew as did the Soviet film industry during the 1920s. In 1925 Sergei Eisenstein’s BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN opened to the acclaim of a world wide audience. Then in 1928 Communist Party Leader Joseph Stalin sought to change Soviet financial and artistic policy. The film industry, which had grown into several separate studios similar to the studio structure in the United States, would be consolidated under one bureaucracy called the Soyuzkino.
The Soyuzkino would coordinate film production and distribution for all Soviet film studios. This also meant that the Soyuzkino would control all content produced. The Soyuzkino also exerted its authority over cinematic style, requiring all films employ “Socialist Realism” as opposed to the avant-garde style of the previous decades. Before the Soyuzkino, the Soviet film industry was putting out over a hundred films a year. Now they could barely get out forty.
During these years, foreign films were banned from being shown in the USSR. Stalin even outlawed the use of foreign technology, requiring all filmmaking resources be made in the Soviet Union, thus delaying the implementation of sound in films to the mid 30s. As decades progressed under Stalin, fewer and fewer films were being released. It wasn’t until Stalin’s death in 1952 that filmmakers could veer away from the formula laid out by the Soyuzkino and abandon Socialist Realism. By the 1960’s there was an explosion of artistic and culturally specific cinema. Although still very much propagandist, they sought out to praise the rich culture and pride of the Soviet Union.
Based on a Nikolai Gogol story, VIY is a brilliant example of post-Stalinist filmmaking that celebrates the communist party by degrading pre-revolution ideals. Film is a reflection of society; VIY makes no apology when portraying the Soviet view of religion. Taking place decades before the revolution, VIY follows a young priest named Khoma. Khoma is one of many seminary students who receive a weekend pass from their elders, then instantly turn into depraved rapists and thieves. Soon after being set loose on the countryside, Khoma accidentally kills a girl during a drunken night of debauchery.
Khoma returns to the seminary only to be told by his elders that a young woman, who is dying, has requested that he come to her immediately. Khoma goes to the girl but learns she has already died. The girl’s rich father offers Khoma a huge reward if he will stay and pray over her for the next three nights. It is during Khoma’s vigil that the real horror begins.
VIY uses wire levitation brilliantly, as well as intensely chilling make-up effects and the latest special effects of editing an overlaying technology of the time period. I know many of us who learned about the Soviet Union from 8th grade Social Studies would imagine a much more bare bones film. However, VIY is at no point amateurish, and at times employs cinematography that rivals many American films. In many regards, I’d even compare it to Roman Polanski’s THE FEARLESS VIMPIRE KILLERS, a very similar horror/ comedy which was released the same year as VIY.
VIY is considered the first official Soviet horror film. Although not not released in the US, Soviet records indicate VIY had 32,600,000 admissions during its originally Russian theatrical release. To put that in perspective, a film cost roughly fifty cents, which means the VIY made $16,300,000, which would have been outstanding for the time period and region. So in today’s terms, VIY would have earned $97,800,000 (these are rough figures from a poor mathematician).
Gradually VIY made its way across the ocean to the US, largely by way of poorly dubbed VHS tapes and bootlegs. The film finally made a stateside DVD release in 2001.
If you’re looking for a more modern take, there is also a post-communist 2014 release in 3D. This has not yet been released in the US (nor does there appear to be plans to). But a region-less DVD player and some quick eBaying can score you a copy. Even without the torrid Soviet history, the remake is equally fun with great 3D effects! Here is the trailer for the 2014 remake-