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Viy and A Holy Place (Blu-ray release)

29 October 2021

Stephen Brown views Soviet-era witchcraft

Eureka Entertainment

A still from the horror film Viy

A still from the horror film Viy

NIKOLAI GOGOL’s story Viy has been adapted for the screen several times. Eureka Entertainment’s recent two-disc Blu-ray edition, though, takes some beating. Not only does it feature the 1967 Soviet-era version of Viy (Cert. 12) but also the 1990 Serbian movie A Holy Place (Cert. 15). There is a cornucopia of extras, including audio commentary, a video essay on the novelist, and archival fragments of other film adaptations.

The original story is not that original, weaving as it does strands of various Slavonic folk tales about witches. The difference is that the genre comes face to face with the 19th-century Orthodox Church.

Three theology students on leave from their seminary lose their way at night. Seeking shelter at a farm, they encounter an old hag, who allocates separate sleeping places for them. She tries to seduce one of them. He refuses. After she puts him under a spell, he realises that she is a witch. Eventually, he wards off her advances by savagely beating her, whereupon she turns into a beautiful young lady.

Fleeing to the seminary, he is told by his Rector that a rich merchant has requested the student’s presence. The merchant’s dying daughter has asked for him by name to pray over her.

On arrival. he discovers that it is the same person, now dead, with whom he battled. From thereon, both films proceed to chronicle a series of sinister transcendental occurrences befalling the student as he prays over her soul for three nights in accordance with Orthodox ritual. The Vigil (Arts, 11 September 2020) covered similar ground with a Jewish youth.

Viy and A Holy Place go on to present the same story differently. It is the special effects that particularly distinguish Viy, thanks to its artistic director Aleksandr Ptushko. By way of stop-motion techniques and lurid colour schemes, he brings to 1960s cinema a peculiar sense of dread. A Holy Place invokes some disturbing and erotic back stories to create horrors of another magnitude. Neither film attempts to explain how a witch can transform into someone beautiful. Possibly the young woman in Viy (described as a saint) had a spell cast on her at some point, only to be overthrown by death. A Holy Place makes it clear that the merchant’s daughter is already enchanted.

We need to put both films into the political context of atheistic states. Whatever the religious beliefs of their directors were, it is made clear that normal Christian practices cannot ultimately prevail against the forces of evil, despite a church setting. No ritual or recitation of scripture will avert disaster. On the other hand, these films offer no assurances that anything else will be more effective. Resurrection of the dead remains as much a mystery to secularism as does the imperfectibility of the human race.

The films are tacitly acknowledging that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves against all that may assault and hurt the soul. God alone knows.

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