Issue 64 (2019)

Egor Baranov: Gogol—Viy (Gogol’. Vii, 2018) and Gogol—A Terrible Vengeance (Gogol’. Strashnaia mest’, 2018)

reviewed by Ira Österberg © 2019

Gogol ViyGogol— Viy and Gogol— A Terrible Vengeance are both sequels to the fantasy-horror film Gogol—The Beginning (Gogol’. Nachalo, 2017) released a year earlier. Just like their predecessor, the two sequels have done exceptionally well at the box office, both being among the top ten most popular Russian films in 2018 (Fond Kino 2019). The trilogy depicts the amazing adventures of Nikolai Gogol, a beautifully pale and frail writer, running around in the woods of Dikanka solving slasher love crimes while having seizures and hallucinating about an arrogant and derisive Pushkin turning into a pig. Essentially, the films represent a philologist’s dream of present-day Russian culture.

The work was initially conceived as a television series rather than a trilogy. To maximize the profitability of this very expensive and extravagant production, it was decided that the eight episodes would premiere in theatrical distribution as four separate films, each comprising two episodes (Bryzgalova & Boleckaja 2017). Somewhere along the way the idea of four films disappeared, and a trilogy was born. Given their television origins, however, the three films form an unusually close-knit conceptual whole. They could be considered the epitome of both the “serialization” of cinema and the “cinefication” of television series.

Gogol Viy The person behind the series is Aleksandr Tsekalo, founder of the Sreda production company and best known for his work in television comedies such as the popular show Bol’shaia raznitsa [Big Difference]. The eventual script of the first Gogol film was credited to a team of six writers. Only two of these contributed to the second and third films, namely Natal’ia Merkulova and Aleksei Chupov, who could therefore be considered the main creative force behind the conception of the story. They have a long history of collaboration in screenwriting, most notably in CTB’s space hit film Salyut-7 (2017), and they also co-directed the recent art-house drama The Man Who Surprised Everyone (Chelovek, kotoryi udivil vsekh, 2018).

Overall, the concept of Gogol as film/series is ingenious. It combines several current and popular television trends: period costume drama, castles, village life, horse riding and sword fighting are intertwined with murder investigations, clue-solving, autopsies, and gruesome violence. Furthermore, and to the delight of Russian studies scholars, these internationally hot topics are combined with genuinely home-grown material: traditional Ukraino-Russian folklore, fairytale motifs and nineteenth-century literary history—the ultimate cultural treasure.

Gogol ViyAnother impressive dimension in the Gogol films, in addition to the overall idea, concerns the casting, make-up, and costuming. Aleksandr Petrov with his pale white face and amazing green-blue eyes will forever be the perfect reincarnation of Nikolai Gogol—there simply is no option other than perceiving the classic writer as a cool yet terrified demon-slaying superhero. The cast includes both seasoned film favorites such as Oleg Men’shikov and fresh faces including those of Taisia Vilkova (from the TV show Deffchonki and the voice of Matilda in the film of the same name) and Julia Franc: in all cases it seems as if the roles were created specifically for them.

Some of the magic could be attributed to the special-effects department, with the extraordinarily prolonged focus on the actors’ eyes: the bright-colored irises and their liquid-like sparkle make the characters seem very gentle and human—at least the ones who are depicting humans. This applies in particular to the male characters. The state of the eyes, in fact, is used in the films for the purposes of character description and of differentiating between good and evil.

Gogol—Viy, the second film of the trilogy, comprises two episodes. The first one, entitled “The Enchanted Place” (Zakoldovannoe mesto), is clearly an intermediate work that unfortunately lacks the fascinating literary historical references that were so prominent and enjoyable in the preceding film. The chief investigator Guro (Men’shikov) was supposedly killed midway through the first film, hence Gogol (Petrov) takes the lead in the second one and is more assertive in his actions. His new role is defined by the inclusion of a new sidekick—Bomgart (Jan Tsapnik), the alcoholic doctor with a heart of gold. As their friendship and collaboration deepen, the doctor starts drinking less and develops into a valuable counterpart to Gogol’s character.

Gogol Viy It is somewhat disappointing that the heroes of the film(s) comprise an “all-male panel.” As a result, the roles allocated to women become tediously predictable halfway through: the murder victims in each episode are young maidens found slain in the woods, and the primary suspect is almost always the girl’s lover. Ultimately, if the girl survives, she turns out to be a witch. Essentially, the message seems to be that women are either victims or demonic killers, or both.

The amalgamation of women and demonic forces also has an ironic aspect—as an overemphasized undercurrent of many contemporary action narratives. This is made particularly clear in the phallic death of the alleged witch (Kseniia Razina). Luckily there are also plenty of minor twists that help to maintain interest despite the somewhat repetitious pattern. What is refreshing is the overall absence of nudity and explicit sexual content—which would likely not have been the case had the series been made for American cable television.

Gogol Viy The second episode, which like the entire film is entitled “Viy”, is probably the most eagerly awaited in the series. This short story from Gogol’s Mirgorod (1935) is, in fact, the most commonly filmed Russian horror motif of all time. At least five different film versions have been made in Russia (in 1909 by Vasilii Goncharov; in 1916 by Wladislaw Starewicz; in 1967 by Konstantin Ershov and Georgii Kropachov; in 2006 by Oleg Fesenko under the title The Power of Fear [Ved’ma]; and in 2014 by Oleg Stepchenko), of which the only one made during the Soviet era (1967) is the most famous. In fact, it is often referred to as the only horror film made in the Soviet Union. A couple of film versions of the Gogol story have also been made abroad, most notably the Italian Black Sunday (La maschera del demonio, 1960), directed by the father of the modern slasher film, Mario Bava, and starring the British actress Barbara Steele.

The 2018 reincarnation of “Viy” does not really focus on the torment of a young priest watching over the dead body of a young woman who keeps rising from her coffin and calling to her demonic master—the horrible Viy. Instead, the tension is built on the question of Gogol’s possible origin as a dark creature. The storyline is dominated by flashbacks to Gogol’s birth as a mystic event in which dark forces were involved as his parents became desperate after several consecutive stillbirths. This is juxtaposed with Doctor Bomgart’s painful recollections of his failed attempt to save a dying infant with the help of electricity, a deed that led to his expulsion to the provinces. As a consequence, he has lost his belief in God and, essentially, in life. It is Gogol’s task to encourage him to believe again and use his talent to save lives, in the same way as Gogol’s muse and object of desire Liza (Vilkova) had encouraged him to continue with his writing in the first film.

Gogol Viy The second film as the intermediate part has been the most challenging in terms of pulling its own weight, and effectively it has not managed to do so. Part of the problem is the fact that the film is, by default, built on the grand entrance of the demon at the end even if the main interest lies elsewhere, namely in the writer Gogol’s development, as the director Egor Baranov also acknowledged in an interview (Al’perina 2018). In the end, nothing could come close to the charming and iconic visualization of Aleksandr Ptushko’s design in 1967 and Natal’ia Varlei’s portrayal of the black-haired dead girl dressed in white. Nevertheless, despite the ineffectiveness of the climax, it is still extremely and oddly rewarding to see the writer placed within the circle of his own inventions: Gogol as a real character standing between the brave priest Khoma Brut (Aleksei Vertkov) reading the sacred lines, and the beautiful she-demon (Razina) as she tries to force her way in.

Gogol Viy Overall, the visual and special effects in the film are innovative and beautiful. There are some really effective fairytale motifs, a bright red flower and rocks turning to gold. Such instances, like the hovering effect of the red shirt in the first film, pay homage to the children’s films of Ptushko and Aleksandr Rou—in this case with the addition of a little more gore. The exceptionally bright flashes of green and red are striking among the predominantly blue color scheme. There is also an amazing underwater scene in which Gogol dives into a river inhabited by the spirits of drowned girls: their hands flowing gently in the riverbed is an image so striking that it even features on the film’s poster.

Gogol ViyEven if Gogol—Viy does not warrant the status of an independent film outside the trilogy, it nevertheless builds up strong themes that the third and final film addresses. A Terrible Vengeance takes its name from one of the stories in Gogol’s Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, even though it bears hardly any resemblance to the actual story. The last two episodes, “Lair of the Horseman” (Logovo vsadnika) and “A Terrible Vengeance” focus instead on developing and bringing to a conclusion the overarching themes from the previous parts: Gogol’s ambivalent status as a “dark one,” the true identity of the horseman, the unrequited love of the miller’s daughter turned water-nymph (played by Franc), and the disappearance of Guro. Building on larger themes instead of telling an independent story is, in fact, one of the strengths of this last part. It is a relief that no new characters are introduced (i.e. another maiden who would be courted by some village boy). The only exception is an embedded story within the story that takes place almost 200 years further back in time. It is a flashback that (finally!) brings sword-fighting heroic maidens into the picture.

If birth and death were the main topics in part two, then the finale of the trilogy focuses on the theme of resurrection. Three characters are brought back to life in one way or another during the course of the last two episodes, one of them even more than once. This part ties all these loose ends nicely together, and there are more than enough twists and turns as the plot unfolds. Sadly, the elements of a children’s fairytale are left behind in the unraveling of all the interwoven material, despite the emergence of a sweet yet powerful little girl (Marta Timofeeva) as a key character. There are some pleasant references to further texts from literary history, however. At one point villagers mob Gogol and accuse him of being a vurdalak—a nineteenth-century word for a vampire coined by Pushkin and picked up by Aleksei Tolstoi in his classic horror story “The Family of the Vourdalak” (“La Famille du Vourdalak”, 1839).[1] Elsewhere, Gogol is haunted by an early memory from his childhood—a man without a nose—and it is a refreshing twist to turn Gogol’s best-known character-trope that is traditionally viewed as a comic figure into a truly scary apparition.

Gogol Viy A further interesting aspect of the films is the simultaneous presence and absence of the Ukrainian motifs. Gogol’s tales draw on Ukrainian as opposed to Russian fairytales and folklore. There are no mentions of this in the dialogue, but many of the songs featured in the score are of Ukrainian origin: rap artist Scroogee and singer Svetlana Loboda, as well as the haunting folk melody “Shchedrik”, also known in English as “The Carol of the Bells”. This music is then counterbalanced by having the ultimate Russian rockers, Sergei Shnurov and the group Akvarium, singing at the very end. The theme of a blended Ukrainian-Russian heritage and pop culture could be seen both as an attempt to build a cultural bridge of common kinship, and as further evidence of Russia’s cultural imperialism.

Gogol ViyIn any case, nineteenth-century Russian literature has probably never seemed so modern and potentially appealing to a contemporary young audience. The Gogol films pay homage not only to literary history in general but also to the history of Russian horror from Gogol and A. K. Tolstoi to Aleksandr Ptushko and Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor, 2004), and also to non-Russian horror classics, from The Excorcist (USA, 1973) to Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (USA, 1992). The individual parts of the trilogy may not stand as independent works in their own right, but as a textual whole, with all the ironic undertones and intertextual references, these films provide pretty intellectual entertainment.

 


Notes

1] The novella was originally written in French, the Russian translation “Sem’ia vurdalaka” being published in 1884. Interestingly, the Italian director Mario Bava has also filmed this story: it is included as “The Wurdalak” (“I wurdalak”) in his film anthology Black Sabbath (I tre volti della paura, 1963).

Ira Österberg
Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki, Finland

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Works Cited

Al’perina, Susanna, 2018. “Ostorozhno: veki otkryvaiutsia. Sem’ naivnyh voprosov o seriale ‘Gogol’. Vii’.” Rossiiskaia gazeta 5 April

Bryzgalova, Ekaterina and Boleckaja Ksenija, 2017. “Telekanal TV-3 pokazhet teleserial ‘Gogol’’ snachala v kinoteatrakh, a lish’ potom na teleekrane.” Vedomosti 21 February.

Fond Kino 2019. “Kinoprokat Rossii. Itogi 2018 goda.” Fond Kino website. 2 January.


Gogol. Viy, 2018
Color, 99 minutes

Gogol. A Terrible Vengeance, 2018
Color, 92 minutes
Director: Egor Baranov
DoP: Sergei Trofimov
Screenwriter: Natal’ia Merkulova, Aleksei Chupov
Editor: Aleksandr Ivanov
Sound: Mikhail Alekseenkov, Nikita Ershov
Music: Ryan Otter
Producers: Aleksandr Tsekalo, Artur Dzhanibekian, Valerii Fedorovich, Evgenii Nikishov
Production: Telekanal TV 3 and Sreda Production Company

Egor Baranov: Gogol—Viy (Gogol’. Vii, 2018) and Gogol—A Terrible Vengeance (Gogol’. Strashnaia mest’, 2018)

reviewed by Ira Österberg © 2019

Updated: 2019