Plot: journalist investigates mysterious going-ons in a remote village.
Viy (1967) is the quintessential Russian folkloric horror that every serious fan of the genre at least should have a passing familiarity with. Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol’s novel Viy served as an inspiration to Mario Bava for his classic gothic horror The Mask Of Satan (1960) (with Barbara Steele) and continues to resonate with audiences, domestic and abroad, to this day. That Viy (1967) has been remade, retold, and reimagined several times in the ensuing decades since should surprise no one. The most memorable of these reimagining was probably A Holy Place (1990) that was made in Serbia (then still Yugoslavia) some 23 years later. This Balkan horror was more of a liberal retelling rather than a loving direct remake. It followed the basic contours of Gogol’s beloved story but added enough new elements to become a distinct entity of its own. It probably also didn’t hurt that it was directed by Đorđe Kadijević or the man behind the first Serbian horror film The Butterfly (1973).
Between that and this Russian-Estonian reimagining lie just a comperatively meager 16 years. Ведьма (Vědma, or Witch – released as Evil in North America and internationally as The Power Of Fear) was directed by Oleg Fesenko and it’s somewhat of an anomaly as most of his filmography seems to consist of historical war dramas and the occassional blockbuster. Then there was the South Korean anthology Evil Spirit ; VIY 마녀의 관 (2008) from Park Jin-Seong that used Gogol’s story as a basis for its three segments. Almost a decade and a half later director Oleg Stepchenko got the brilliant idea of expanding upon Evil and turning into a franchise. Thus the world got Viy 2: Journey to China (2019) and Viy 3: Travel to India (2023). On the small screen there’s the Gogol trilogy of fantasy horror films of Egor Baranov consisting of Gogol. The Beginning (2017), Gogol. Viy (2018), and Gogol. Terrible Revenge (2018). The tripartite chronicles the alternate history adventures of Viy writer Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol. While all are servicable in their own right none are required viewing. A Holy Place (1990) merits interest moreso than the contemporary Russian reimaginings of the story because it actually tries to do something with the central premise. Evil is certainly good for what it is, but it isn’t exactly brimming with new ideas. The only new thing that Evil does is setting the story in contemporary times, and nothing else. Interestingly in crucial moments it echoes The Butterfly (1973) more than Viy (1967).
Ivan Berkhoff (Valeriy Nikolaev) is a hard-drinking and womanizing reporter for an unsavory tabloid. One morning he gets a rude awakening when he wakes up not only with two naked girls in his bed but also to an angry phone call from his boss. Apparently Berkhoff has been missing for the past two days and he’s ordered to investigate supernatural events in the remote village of Castleville. Judging from the clippings on his wall Berkhoff is on his way to the Pulitzer Prize but to put food on the table he also covers important cultural events as the regional Miss Boobs contest. Ivan dislikes the prospect of being far away from civilization but begrudgingly accepts his assignment (but not without an honest fight and some resistance) and hits the road. In a nearby town he stops at the local cantina for food and drink. There he meets geriatric priest Father Touz (Jaan Rekkor, as Ian Rekkor) and wheelchair-bound Mr. Patch (Arnis Licitis) who are having a philosophical debate about the nature of faith and spout cryptic warnings about the undead. That night Ivan experiences car trouble during a torrential rain on an abandoned road. He braves the storm and seeks shelter in a nearby old and decrepit mansion. There he’s welcomed by an old woman (Ita Ever, as Ira Ever) and seems to disappear into thin air almost immediately after. At the strike of midnight Ivan is lounging in bath when he’s approached by an attractive young woman calling herself Marryl (Evgeniya Kryukova). Just when passion starts to ignite the maiden turns into an old hag. Berkhoff fights and strangles the hag and flees the mansion in sheer mortal peril. The next morning he finds himself dazed and confused next to a truck. When he discovers the cadaver of Father Touz inside he deducts that the clergyman was heading for Castleville too. He assumes the old priest’s identity and insinuates his way back into town. There he’s met by the sheriff (Lembit Ulfsak) who informs him that a young girl was murdered the night before. As a possible witness or suspect the lawman interrogates the young priest about his whereabouts and the identity of the girl. It dawns upon Ivan that the sheriff is the girl’s father. Being the priest he’s expected to pray for Marryl’s immortal soul for three consecutive nights in the village’s massive gothic church. Will Ivan be strong enough to withstand the unholy forces of evil?
By placing the events in contemporary times and in what we’re led to believe are the American hinterlands (but is actually Estonia) sets Evil up for a whole host of new problems. That’s not even mentioning the opening scene that recalls, of all things, The Witches Mountain (1972) as it sends its hapless journalist on a supposed scoop. First and foremost, there’s an immediate and subtle difference between how this and the 1967 original choose to name themselves. Вий or Viy/Vii roughly translates to “spirit of evil” whereas Ведьма or Vědma means “witch”. The distinction is important as Evil gives Marryl more vampyric properties than that of either a witch or a spirit. There certainly is a component of witchcraft that’s true to the title but nothing comes from it. When Ivan braves the storm he seeks shelter in a palatial, sarcophagal mansion where an old lady and beautiful maiden dwell, just like The Witch in Love (1966). Viy, both in print and in the earliest adaptation, was a period piece and a morality play and both of those elements are, were, and remain key to its enduring relevance. All of the characters were morally ambiguous and compromised in some way. Second, Ivan is not a clergyman and his faith (or lack thereof) is never of any importance. Once Marryl reappears after their nocturnal tryst as the deceased girl he’s expected to pray over for three nights we’re supposed to believe that the godless materialist Ivan turns to faith in mortal fright to ward off the evil that she embodies. If this is supposed to convey the message of finding relief in your belief something went terribly wrong. Lastly, and more damningly, on the third night Marryl does not summon all the horrors of hell and the mighty beast Viy does not even appear! Which is strange because the demons, ghouls, and the living dead were the highpoint of the original. It speaks volumes when a movie some forty years older did the conclusion more convincingly with practical in-camera effects and old school parlor tricks than this inane phantasmagoria of CGI.
Viy (1967) was, is, and remains, a Soviet classic that has withstood the test of time. It was a victory of art and storytelling over budget and practical limitations. It harnessed that ephemeral and intangible quality that can only be described as atmosphere. In contrast this loose retelling tries it darndest to be cool and edgy, but effortlessly fails on both counts. Wicked tongues claim that the advent of affordable CGI has made filmmaking easier. That may very well be true, but the lost art of practical stunts and in-camera special effects is something we’re staunch proponents of and something in which Evil, outside of some very select wirework, comes up sorely lacking. The biggest issue is that Evil tries to pass itself off as a modern day vampire film more than the atmospheric gothic horror that Viy (1967) was. Valery Nikolaev (Валерий Николаев) is amiable enough and Evgeniya Kryukova (Евге́ния Крю́кова) is, of course, beautiful but she can in no way, shape, or form compete with the iconic performance of Natalya Varley (Наталья Варлей). Nikolaev and Kryukova can act but there’s no chemistry to speak of between the two. Like so many Russian horrors Evil too is a thinly-veiled propaganda piece for the Eastern Orthodox Church and its doctrines. As such it comes with all the heavy-handed religious iconography and proselytizing you’d expect. Ultimately the 2014 remake is truer to the spirit of the 1967 original while this liberal reworking is more faithful to the word. None of which changes that both this, the later remake, and the 2008 South Korean remake in between, are dubious at best and completely unnecessary at worst. In the end this is to Viy (1967) what Vampyres (2015) was to Vampyres (1974). Even Vurdalaki (2017) was better.