Last week we took a truly superficial glance at Andrei Tarkovsky, in the context of the Mosfilm site and its generous offering of full length features from Russian cinema. Some of his classic works are there, including his renowned 1972 adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s Sci-Fi novel: Solaris. I’d use the term “must see” with caution. You may not be ready for a ruminating two hour, twenty minute space epic about Cosmonauts having psychological breakdowns (Star Wars it isn’t), but when you are, it’ll be there. In the meantime, other treasures await.
Whilst perusing Mosfilm, something else caught my eye: an adaptation of Gogol’s Viy. It’s something of a coincidence as there has been a recent remake of the film, released at the start of June (2015). The version offered on Mosfilm (Viy: Spirit of Evil) dates from 1967 and is hailed as Russia’s first Horror film, though perhaps ‘Dark Fantasy’ might be a better fit for our Western mindset. It’s got a Brothers Grimm meets Tim Burton feel about it and even plays up certain comedic aspects, lent by some of the peripheral, rustic peasant characters.
The plot concerns a travelling philosopher/monk who is charged with watching over the corpse of a deceased witch. What could possibly go wrong? Well, plenty, as the undead witch refuses to relinquish her grip on the land of the living and she and her demonic cohorts try to threaten, coax and cajole the hapless monk out of his protective chalk circle. Not exactly Soviet fare you may think; with the regime’s pragmatic, anti-religious stance, but in seeking to present the film as a depiction of a folk tale, its creators were permitted extra artistic licence. “Folk Tale” equates with “Cultural Heritage” after all. The film is also English subtitled, which is certainly a bonus if your Russian language isn’t up to par.
The sets, characters, costumes, lighting and makeup are fabulous, and evocative both of ancient Russia and mid 20th Century cinematic techniques. The look and feel of the whole ensemble is a joy – if you’re into classic cinema. The effects are unsurprisingly clunky, but still maintain a vintage charm, again; if that’s your thing. The same can’t be said of Viy: Forbidden Kingdom (directed by Oleg Stepchenko, 2015) which gets the full FX treatment, both practical and CG, whilst at the same time playing pretty loose with Gogol’s original text. The 1967 film used plenty of leeway with its interpretation of the tale, but the latter: even more so. It even features a character based upon real-life cartographer Guillaume Le Vasseur de Beauplan, by way of homage, as he was the first to record and systematize Slavic myths and folk tales, publishing them in a single volume.
Paradoxically, whilst imposing a whole new character and narrative arc onto Gogol’s tale, the production also drew upon the first edition of the publication, which preserved more of its author’s intent than subsequent versions: so a curious hybrid has emerged that also includes stunts, fight scenes and FX mayhem typical of a mainstream Western fantasy production – though for a fraction of the cost. Frankly, it all sounds great – unless you are a Gogol purist, of course. English actors Charles Dance and Jason Flemyng feature strongly even though the language is mainly Russian, and most of the cast are Russian or Eastern European.
The film had something of a troubled and protracted production history, seeing as it commenced back in 2005 and was halted on occasion due to lack of funds. With half of the footage shot, the painful decision was made to re-shoot the whole thing in order for a new and progressive version of stereoscopic 3D technology to be incorporated. Unfortunate then, that it seems to have slipped out in the West without much fanfare, so most people will see it on DVD (on decidedly 2D screens). It looks like a fun romp at any rate. Oh, and they’re currently working on part 2!
[Photo by imdb]