A young priest is ordered to preside over the wake of a witch, whom he murdered, which means spending three nights alone in her mausoleum.
This film caught my eye as I was scouring the Internet for more horror films to watch. The main reason for it giving me pause was that this was supposedly the first horror film made in Soviet Russia, and that right there was enough to make me want to watch it. Further grabbing my interest was the fact that this was based on a story by Nikolay Gogol (a great Russian novelist and playwright from the nineteenth century), who had based his short story on a Ukrainian folk story. As this film’s runtime is barely over an hour, I could think of no reason not to watch this, and I was terrifically happy that I did.
“I summon the vampires! I summon the werewolves! I summon Viy!”
Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov, “Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future”), a seminary student, travels home for lent with a group of friend, only to stop at a home where an old woman allows them to stay for the night. During the night, however, the old woman approaches Khoma; she grabs him with one hand and hold a broom in the other, and flies into the skies. Khoma curses the woman and hits her repeatedly, but she continues flying until he invokes the name of Christ. The old woman then lands and Khoma continues beating her until she turns into a young and beautiful woman. Khoma flees and returns to the monastery where he had been studying, only to immediately be told that he must attend to a funeral for the daughter of a wealthy man. When Khoma arrives he sees that the girl is Pannochka (Naralya Varley, “Kidnapping, Caucasian Style”), the same younger woman that he had beaten early. Khoma is told that he must pray for three nights for the woman’s soul, while staying beside her in the mausoleum. As the nights wear on, Khoma begins to worry for his soul.
First and foremost, I really enjoy the story and the way it was approached- it’s simple and succinct and was perfectly fitted to this hour-and-fifteen minute runtime. Not a minute of that time was wasted- the story begins quickly, we’re introduced to our characters, scary stuff happens, and the film ends. If there was ever a film that had a tighter, simpler script I’d like to see it. The story, while simple, still is able to bring forth a sense of irony. The first time this happens is when Khoma is called back to a village to oversee a funeral for a woman he beat to death, but another great irony comes towards the end of the film. As the film rolls on, Khoma no longer prays for Pannochka’s soul but for his own, which, in the end, might be his downfall.
Another thing I liked was the attention to detail when it came to the cinematography. There are lots of inventive shots and framing in this film, particularly outside the mausoleum. When Khoma is first traveling away from seminary school there are a few great shots that frame towers or buildings between people in the foreground, giving the framing lots of depth. There’s also lots of great staging throughout this movie; the frames are always full, but not busy or crowded. There were some really cool special effects in this film as well- though most of them, I will admit, are starting to look a bit dated. Perhaps the coolest special effect is when the witch first lifts Khoma up into the air and takes him flying. Though after a moment it becomes obvious that most of that scene is done with rear projection. The best makeup effects, and probably the creepiest part of the film, come with the climax and those are actually still genuinely exhilarating. A lot of the tense moments in this movie are elevated by the two leads: Kuravlyov and Varley. Varley is wonderfully creepy as Pannochka, and Kuravlyov is fantastic at acting frightened. As a pair, the two work wonders on screen.
While I will admit the ending of this movie wasn’t enough to truly scare me in the way that other horror films do today, the climax brought a smile to my face. This isn’t a movie I’d recommend to people that aren’t genuine cinephiles, because I honestly think most audiences would find this movie a little anticlimactic. For me, however, this was a look back at film history, to a time when horror films seldom came from the Soviet Union. If you’re a cinephile, you owe it to yourself to see this movie, not just because it’s entertaining, but also because of its significance.
This is part of our 31 Nights of Thrills Series. Not all of the movies we review for this series will be strictly horror, but all will have something to do with the spirit of things spooky or scary. If you like those types of movies, be sure to check back throughout the month of October!
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