By TNHC's Editorial Director, Emily Malone.
In the vast tapestry of global cinema, there are moments where art, history and culture converge in unexpected ways, creating masterpieces that transcend their time. "Viy" (1967), a product of the Soviet film industry, is one such work.
At its heart lies a haunting tale penned by Nikolai Gogol, but the film's significance extends far beyond its narrative, standing as a testament to a unique moment in Soviet history: Khrushchev's Thaw. This period of relative liberalisation, juxtaposed with the film's pioneering foray into horror, offers a glimpse into the complexities and nuances of cultural expression during a time of change.
A New Dawn in Soviet Cinema
Before delving into the intricacies of Viy, it's crucial to set the stage. The era, termed Khrushchev's Thaw, marked a shift from the rigid constraints of Stalin's regime, birthing an atmosphere where artists could experiment, challenge and innovate. Films previously banned saw the light of day, and a fresh wave of creativity emerged, colouring the cinematic landscape with shades previously unseen.
Yet, with all its freedom, the Thaw wasn't a carte blanche. Filmmakers had to navigate the delicate dance between pushing boundaries and appeasing censors. And it's here that Viy shines brightly, illuminating the path taken by its creators.
Merging Traditional Folklore with Uncharted Horror
The decision to adapt Gogol's tale, deeply rooted in Slavic folklore, into a horror film was both brilliant and strategic. Horror, in its essence, is about venturing into the unknown, challenging our deepest fears and confronting the inexplicable. It’s a genre that, in many ways, mirrored the spirit of the Thaw — a time of exploring the unknown terrains of artistic freedom.
Yet, for such exploration to resonate with its audience and perhaps even to safeguard against potential state backlash, grounding it in folklore was pivotal. This familiar territory ensured that even as viewers ventured into the uncharted realms of horror, they remained anchored to tales and motifs deeply ingrained in their cultural consciousness.
The sweeping Ukrainian landscapes, eerily silent yet teeming with ancient tales, the grotesque creatures emerging from the abyss of Slavic legends, and the palpable tension between faith, doubt and human frailty all converge in Viy, crafting a narrative that's both terrifying and familiar.
Women, Religion and Societal Undertones in Viy
At the core of Viy is a simple but gripping story: Khoma Brutus, a seminarian, is forced to spend three nights praying over the body of a young woman, only to find himself confronted by supernatural horrors each night. But peel back the layers, and you find a rich tapestry of themes reflecting its time.
For starters, the film’s portrayal of women, particularly through the crone/maiden juxtaposition, is hard to miss. On one side, there's the enchanting, beautiful young woman that could give Lana Del Rey a run for her money. On the other, a more traditional representation of a scary old lady as a menacing witch.
It’s as if the film's playing with the societal roles and expectations of women: the innocent maiden turned vengeful spirit. This duality, set against the backdrop of the Thaw, might reflect the society's views on aging women, as well as its own uncertainties about changing gender roles and dynamics.
And then, there's the film’s take on religion. The seminarians, who should ideally be the pillars of piety, are showcased with flaws aplenty – from getting into drunken escapades to snatching up women and stealing geese. It’s both comedic and a subtle jab, perhaps pointing to the broader societal critiques of religious institutions and their roles.
Incorporating these themes into a tale that marries Slavic folklore with horror not only amplifies the intrigue but also offers a mirror to the society of the time – one on the cusp of change, teetering between tradition and modernity.
The Legacy of Viy
Viy isn't merely one of the first horror films of its time and place; it's a historical artefact. It showcases the dance between innovation and tradition, offering insights into how filmmakers, during Khrushchev's Thaw, harnessed their newfound freedoms. By choosing a narrative grounded in folklore, they bridged the old with the new, crafting a film that was both groundbreaking in its genre and deeply tied to its cultural roots.
Moreover, the film's choice of horror, a genre that was often relegated to the fringes of 'high art', highlights the democratising spirit of the Thaw. Horror, with its raw emotional appeal, reaches across class and education, speaking a universal language of fear and intrigue. By giving it a platform, Soviet cinema was not only diversifying its offerings but also embracing a more inclusive artistic vision.
It's a journey through a pivotal era in Soviet history, a masterclass in balancing innovation with tradition and a testament to the universality of storytelling. As we reflect on its significance, it stands as a reminder of the boundless possibilities that arise when artists are given the freedom to explore, challenge and redefine boundaries. In the haunting landscapes of Viy, we see the spirit of an era both embracing the stories of the past and reaching towards the future.