Issue 47 (2015)
Oleg Stepchenko: Viy 3D (2014)
reviewed by Mila Nazyrova© 2015
The protagonist of Oleg Stepchenko’s new adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s Vii is a foreign traveler who arrives in a legendary Slavic land and witnesses horrifying and presumably magical events. Yet fantasy is intertwined with mystery, and the majority of the events prove to be criminal acts rather than supernatural interventions. Despite these resourceful storytelling twists, the story written by Aleksandr Karpov and directed by Stepchenko, is too predictable for the horror/fantasy genre, lacks inner development, and is helped along by deus ex machina type characters. Inconsistent at times, the story balances at the verge of irony, which compromises viewer’s empathy toward the good and kind characters and their quest to defeat evil. Moreover, the dilemma of magical vs. rational explanation of the events in the story is never clearly resolved, and the affirmation of the magical in the end comes off as rather artificial, even though it involves the cutest little monster ever generated by computer animation.
Nonetheless the 3D film has its unquestionable formal strengths, as it stands unparalleled for computer generated visual effects in modern Russian film. Its spectacular and very distinctive CGI creatures evoke the world of computer game animation, as they are created not to scare as much as to entertain and impress. The horror-film atmosphere is also evoked through bold, sweeping camera movements and dramatic angles—in keeping with the tradition established in post-Soviet films, such as Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor, 2004) and Generation P (2011). It shouldn’t be considered a significant drawback that the impact of these formal ornaments becomes overwhelming at times, as, for example, the vertiginous effect in the scene where Khoma says prayers in the Church and the camera rotates around him at a very fast pace.
The story of Gogol’s Vii is framed by the story—with a nod to Bram Stoker’s Dracula—of Jonathan Green, an 18th century cartographer from Greenwich, England who, as vaguely suggested, invents the idea of standard time and undertakes the mapping out of European time zones. Green (Flemyng), has spent all his fortune on his scientific work, and serves as a tutor at the house of Lord Dudley (Dance). Green and Miss Dudley (Churina) have a secret affair and after the infuriated father catches them in action, Jonathan runs away to Europe. He plans to create maps and earn enough money from his invention to be able to marry his beloved. When he is away, the couple communicates via pigeon mail and from these letters we learn about the majority of events. Strangely, although Jonathan’s letters are written in code (Leonardo da Vinci code, as he claims), Lord Dudley, who intercepts many of the letters, has no problem reading them.
Having passed Transylvania, Jonathan finds himself in a Ukrainian village in the Carpathian Mountains whose dwellers believe the place is haunted by Vii, a horrifying ancient pagan deity. As Jonathan rides in his driverless coach (specially built for the film), two Bursa students jump in and after all three drink gorilka together, they tell him about Khoma Brut, who had disappeared there a year ago. The sequence in which the two friends deliver their story, directly alludes to Vii’s 1967 adaptation. What happens between Khoma (Petrukhin) and the witch and how he kills her when they land is not quite clear from Stepchenko’s rendition of the events, and here he can’t but rely upon the audience’s familiarity with Gogol’s text or the older film.
During this scene Jonathan’s Russian proficiency (in the Russian version of the film, the villagers only speak Russian) improves dramatically from complete inability to say anything but the word “food” to quite decent listening comprehension, which allows him to understand the entire story of Khoma. This might seem inconsistent, but it could be attributed to a side effect of consuming gorilka, as the appearance of mysterious elements based on Gogol’s tale always follows Jonathan’s drinking the local tipple. The hyperbolic power of gorilka intoxication is a possible rationalistic explanation of the supernatural in the film’s diegetic world.
Whereas this is the first time Jonathan is exposed to the story of Pannochka’s death, we are already familiar with a completely different and equally incredible version of it. In the opening sequence, village girls come to the river to read fortune with wreaths on St. John’s Eve. Two girls encounter a horned monster covered in sheepskin and when the villagers find them in the morning, one of the girls, Pannochka (Zaitseva) is dying after probably being raped. Her final words to her father are about some Khoma Brut whom she wants to say prayers over her body. The other girl Nastusia (Ditkovskite) survives but loses the ability to speak. The villagers believe that Vii was involved in the incident.
After the meeting with two students and the encounter with fiery-eyed wolves, or perhaps werewolves, the protagonist enters the village. While there, he partakes of more gorilka in the company of villagers, and has a terrifying vision. In a fascinating digitally animated sequence the villagers transform into monsters and Vii makes his appearance and—quite paradoxically—orders the protagonist to help Pannochka’s soul find peace. Overall, while the first part of the film proceeds at a good pace, and with some style, the narrative begins to falter and stumble in the second hour, and lapses into plot holes, hectic amalgamations of random events, and ungainly attempts to patch them all up.
While in the village, Jonathan is hired by Pannochka’s father to investigate both her death and the mysterious events that occurred in the church during Khoma’s reading. In contrast to the villagers, Jonathan is a rationalist who has no fear of the cursed place—the church where the coffin with Pannochka’s body is still to be found. He finds Pannochka’s murderer and also discovers that Khoma, who is alive, is responsible for some of the events that superstitious villagers ascribe to the activity of ghostly powers. In the film’s climax, the life of Nastusia, Jonathan and his interpreter Petrus (Chadov) is seriously endangered by Pannochka’s murderer, but they are saved through the interference of good and smart Iavtukh. Humorously and organically acted by the late Valerii Zolotukhin, Iavtukh is an independent-thinking villager and the film’s deus ex machina, as his actions singularly aid to resolve all the plot entanglements of the film’s second half.
The final meeting between Jonathan and Pannochka’s murderer occurs in the “cursed” church. A gigantic crucifix falls between Jonathan and the antagonist when the latter is about to chop him with an axe. This accident is a pinnacle of all deus ex machina episodes, as it suggests direct divine intervention. After the crucifix saves his life, Jonathan, who was earlier presented as an atheist, crosses himself and seems to start believing in God. The happy ending begins after this climactic scene. Jonathan is forgiven by Lord Dudley who finally learns from pigeon letters that he is a good person. Jonathan comes into possession of a large sum of money buried in the cursed church and sets off for home, but he is not able to leave the village without drinking some more gorilka with the locals. Later, riding in his coach, he declares that the supernatural events of the past few days are only the work of imagination; meanwhile we see a cute squealing bird-like creature, a demon from Vii’s retinue, flying behind his carriage and diving into his map case. Suggesting a sequel to follow, the antagonist disappears after the confrontation in the church and his fate remains completely unknown to the viewer.
The film’s shortcomings probably reflect its seven-year production cycle, which started with the filming of some scenes before the screenplay was written. The early production was also hampered by an initial lack of funding until the project became an international collaboration involving Russia, the Czech Republic and Ukraine. However, the priority in the resumed filming process was given to the 3D imaging and creating quality CGI on a relatively low budget. The target was probably not an audience interested in coherent story and meaningful dialogue, but rather the generation of teenagers that can be wooed by spectacular CGI effects, magical settings, eroticized imagery, lots of action, and humorous situations. The stakes were calculated right and the film, with a budget of $26 million, grossed $34 million in Russian distribution.
Purely entertaining, Viy entirely lacks any philosophical subtext which was typical of Russian worlds of fantasy from Tarkovsky’s Solaris to Bekmambetov’s vampire films. It somehow reminds of the Soviet TV entertainment of the Stagnation era – films spanning various genres, whose story and message were not to be pored over too deeply, as, for example, Mark Zakharov’s An Ordinary Miracle (Obyknovennoe chudo, 1979), That Munchausen (Tot samyi Miunkhauzen, 1979), Mikhail Kozakov’s Pokrov Gates (Pokrovskie vorota 1982) and the Sherlock Holmes series (1979-1986) by Igor Maslennikov. Like these humorous and amusing films watched over and over, as many times as they were shown on TV, Stepchenko’s film also has a potential for re-watching especially in the case of coming sequels.
Ohio State University
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Viy, Russia, Czech Republic, Ukraine, 2014
Color, 146 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Karpov, Oleg Stepchenko
Script: Nikolai Gogol (story), Aleksandr Karpov, Oleg Stepchenko
Cast: Jason Flemyng, Andrei Smoliakov, Aleksei Chadov, Agnia Dikovskite, Iurii Tsurilo, Olga Zaitseva, Valerii Zolotukhin, Aleksei Petrukhin
Music: Anton Garcia
Cinematography: Vladimir Smutný
Editor: Oleg Stepchenko
Production Design: Jan Kadlec Jr., Arthur Mirzoyan
Costume Design: Jarmila Konecná
Producers: Alexander Culicov, Leonid Ogorodnikov, Alexey A. Petrukhin, SergeiSozanovskii
Production: Russian Film Group, Мarins Group Entertainment
Oleg Stepchenko: Viy 3D (2014)
reviewed by Mila Nazyrova© 2015