Month of Horror 2015: World Edition – Russia (USSR): Viy

Editor’s Note: These posts originally appeared starting here on the AV Club *stares off wistfully*. They are being reposted for completionist sake as this annual series continued onto the AVCAD and now here. Also, forgive the writing for I was younger and dumber and these were written to appear in comments so don’t include pictures and are far shorter and less thorough than the series is now. They have been preserved as they were.

Month of Horror: World Edition
10/28/2015 – Russia (USSR): Viy (1967)
Directed by Konstantin Ershov and Georgi Kropachyov

When thinking of countries that would seem to be perfect generators for horror movies, Russia jumps to the top of the list with its lengthy, prominent cinema history and plenty of desolate creepy area to work with. Especially after the takeover of the Communists to become the Soviet Union, an event which frequently damaged the cinema of other Eastern European nations through censorship (certainly still an aspect of the Soviet state), the Russians turned out such hugely influential films as Man with a Movie Camera and Battleship Potemkin all the way up through such films as War and Peace, the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, and Come and See. Despite this, horror cinema does not have a substantial history there and has never really broken through internationally with about the closest being the fantasy films Night Watchand Day Watch and the apparently more fantasy oriented 2014 remake of today’s film which is now third highest grossing Russian film ever with the largest opening weekend in Russian history.

Viy was the first Soviet horror movie and one of the very few to achieve any sort of acclaim. Despite being such a short movie, much of it doesn’t feel particularly horror-like. Until the last 10 minutes, the few moments away from a light comedic-drama are just simple fantasy like interludes which are more goofy badly dated special effects than anything else. Those last 10 minutes instead try to make up for it by throwing just about every stock horror type it can making for an enjoyable if ill-fitting scene. The film definitely benefits though from being only about 70 minutes since it feels stretched out as far as it can as it is and the fairly quick pace keeps the film going at a decent clip.

Leonid Kuravlev does a solid job as the lead as the movie gets going, but he is a bit too hard to take seriously and rarely sympathetic spending just about the entire movie drunk. The rest of the cast is outsized in personality though largely forgettable. The film generally looks fine with its stark black and white cinematography though there is a weird shaking effect as if to simulate a drunken perspective seems to exist randomly throughout and I’m not sure if it is intentional or even if it is something that exists in the original print. There is an emphasis on atmosphere and suspense, but it felt oddly lacking in both despite the technically sound production design. The film just kind of exists rarely bringing out any emotion positive or negative. It’s a passable watch, but hardly worth seeking out for anything more that curiosity.

Month of Horror: World Edition 
Bonus Episode #19 – Venezuela: The House at the End of Time (La casa del fin de los tiempos (2013)
Directed by Alejandro Hidalgo

Venezuela is another cut for time country (and certainly not because I didn’t realize this movie existed until after I had completed my schedule) and yet another film which has had limited success abroad with my knowledge of their cinema being the only recently seen by myself but great Araya though they also won the Golden Lion this year for Desde allá.

Despite my lack of experience with Venezuela’s cinema, I found myself really impressed by The House at the End of Time. I admit that it took me a bit of time to get onto the movies wavelength as the film does not give two shits if you are caught up and barrels right ahead with the plot. There’s no real indication between the different timelines or even SPOILERS that they are both running simultaneously END OF SPOILERS switching between them at will with the only way to tell where you are the presence of some distracting and questionably done old age makeup. I get why they did it, but the film would have been much better off casting an older actress as the older version since it’s rare that even big budget US productions can nail the effect and it certainly ruins a bit of the impact of those scenes.

The film however looks as good as any of those US horror productions, well the good ones anyway, and if it wasn’t in Spanish I certainly could have believed it was American made as it felt very stylistically influenced by them. The film does inherit that frequent American, okay frequent international problem, of using a bit too many jump scares, but it never messes around with false ones and there is plenty of suspense to go with it. The ending “twist” is pretty easy to see coming once you start to figure out what the heck is going on, but to the film’s credit, it never really plays it as a twist. SPOILERS Time traveling is always going to open up quite a few potential plot holes, but as far as I could tell while watching, everything cleaned up nice and stable. I may typically prefer my time travel to be of the sci-fi variety instead of the supernatural variety as it is here (though I have no problem with its use), I appreciated the decision not to really explain why exactly these things are happening here with anything more than a shrug END OF SPOILERS.

Ruddy Rodriguez is great in the lead role, especially when not burdened with all the makeup, creating two distinct but similar characters and able to draw such sympathy to both. The storylines featuring the kids feels a bit disconnected especially early, but as the film goes on it delivers real poignancy and even falls in well thematically at the end. Even with its faults, The House at the End of Time is a very worthy horror entry, provided you can stick with it until things fall into place for you.

Month of Horror: World Edition
(Mini) Bonus Episode #NA – US: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad(1949)
Directed by Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, James Algar

If you are wondering why I am not counting this film, it is because only the latter half is horror-y and that half I’ve already seen before due to Disney generally separating the shorts. Granted it’s been easily over a decade since I have seen it, but it feels unfair to count it. Skipping over the Mr. Toad segment then because it isn’t very good or even vaguely horror related, let’s talk about Ichabod. Even so, it takes a while for that segment even get around to the horror-ish section. In what I’m sure will be considered blasphemy by many, I am not a fan of Disney animation and never was. Growing up I was a WB and Nickelodeon fan and I never took to any of Disney’s beloved “masterpieces” with very few exceptions; the forest scene of Snow White, the pink elephants sequence of Dumbo, and relatedly the heffalumps sequence of Winnie the Poo.

There are certainly plenty of similarities here with the first of those scenes in the portrayal of the forest and I was impressed just how well it’s held up visually. The forest looks great and the headless horseman who seems perpetually clad in shadows with an awesome flaming pumpkin is some of the best design the company has ever done. I’ve also grown rather used to action hero Ichabod of Sleepy Hollow so going back to the more traditional Ichabod was a bit of an adjustment. Even when I did though, the humor still doesn’t work for me. The musical elements were certainly a big part of why I wasn’t a Disney fan and I am still not a fan of them here though Brom Bones’ telling of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow is tolerable. It’s hard judging a film positively where only the last 10-15 minutes of a 68 minute film are any good, but “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is still worth seeing especially if you actually are a Disney fan.

Month of Horror: World Edition
(Mini) Bonus Episode #NA (2) – US: The Old Mill (1937)
Directed by Wilfred Jackson

I don’t know if I’d call The Old Mill strictly horror, but its use of shadows, lightning, and suspense are leagues above many films in that genre. At 9 minutes long it is perfectly paced and the sequence involving a bird and a water mill is just wonderful. It is simple but effective and I can’t ask for much more from a short.

Stupid TCM isn’t airing Lonesome Ghosts and Frankenweenie until after press time so I will discuss them quickly tomorrow to finish up this mini-Disney run.

Up Next: José Mojica Marins’s At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul representing Brazil

Full Schedule