This film is based on a Nikolai Gogol short story from 1835. I had never previously heard of the story, but it was apparently influential enough to inspire about half a dozen film adaptations, of which it would seem that this 1967 one, from Russia, was the most faithful. It’s also a pretty good example of the folktale sub genre of horror.
It opens in a silly mode, with a Kiev seminary about to let the students out for a holiday break. The students appear to be young men in their 20s – at least physically; mentally, they act a lot like boys in junior high. Lots of pranks and little respect for authority. The local town folk view the students, quite correctly, as an emergency on par with a small army invasion.
As the student mob gets further and further from Kiev, it splits and shrinks at every crossroad. Soon, we are left with a trio, the “philosopher” Khoma Brutus and his two friends. They, not too surprisingly, find themselves lost in the wilderness with night coming on. Coming across a farm, they pound on the gates until an old lady reluctantly agrees to give them shelter for the night, albeit in three separate resting places.
Brutus beds down on some hay in the barn, but doesn’t get to sleep very much. The old woman comes in and approaches him with an extremely suggestively leer. Brutus attempts to put her off from what he assumes our sexual advances. He’s in for a surprise, though. She hypnotizes him, climbs on his shoulders, forces him to run through the countryside – and then to fly above it! Yes, the wizened old crone who looks like a witch actually IS a witch.
After some time of this, the flight is interrupted (I think by a black cat crossing their path) and they fall to earth. Brutus picks up a stick and proceeds to cudgel the witch within an inch of her life. At which, the old crone transforms into a beautiful maiden, who continues to lie on the ground moaning. This is too much for Brutus, and he flees back to the seminary, even though holiday has just begun.
The seminary proves to be no refuge for him. A wealthy landowner (and patron of the seminary) sends word that his beautiful daughter is mysteriously ill and has specifically requested Brutus to say prayers over her for three nights. Brutus does NOT want to go along with this, but no one involved is interested in giving him any choice. So, a bunch of peasants from the farm head back with him, pausing along the way to spend a night in a pub and drink a lot of vodka. There is a LOT of vodka drunk in this movie. (Digression: It reminded me of an old storyteller meeting where one of our number was discussing the lessons she had learned from reading a tome of Russian folk tales. “In a Russian folktale, if you have lost everything you own in the world, the first thing you must do is get blind stinking drunk. Corollary: in Russia, vodka is cheaper than dirt.)
Arriving at the farm, Brutus finds that the aristocrat’s daughter looks suspiciously similar to the transformed which he beat up. Oh, and by the way, before he got here, she died. Not that that lets Brutus off the hook. The nobleman insists that he will pray three nights over her corpse in the nearby church. (As Kestrell says, one of the great things about the horror genre is that you can die early in the story, but still be a major character.) If Brutus complies with this demand, he will receive 1000 gold pieces; if he refuses, 1000 lashes. And to make doubly sure, he will be locked inside the church.
The first night arrives. The church has some beautiful artwork, but on the whole is fairly run down, with lots of cobwebs in the corners. It is also infested with cats, leading to a few well done literal cat-scares. But Brutus gets over his skittishness, lights a bunch of candles, sets up his Bible on the lectern, and begins to pray aloud.
He hasn’t been praying for very long before the lid flies off of the coffin, and the beautiful but pale-as-death woman sits up, in a manner presaging Michael Myers. Brutus is understandably terrified, but it transpires that he has learned a thing or two in the seminary. He very quickly draws a chalk circle about his lectern, and proceeds with his (panicked) prayers. The circle seems to protect him both physically and visually. The witch cannot see him, though she eventually tracks him down by touch – to the extent that she hits the invisible force field of the circle. She pounds upon it with all her might, but to no avail. Brutus prays and prays and prays, and at last the cock crows, the witch returns to her coffin, and the farmhands unlock the church.
Brutus doesn’t actually tell them what happened. Perhaps he’s worried they won’t believe him. Perhaps he’s worried that they’ll blame him for beating the witch in the first place. Probably, though, just doesn’t want them to think he’s scared. After all, he is a Cossack by blood, and Cossacks fear nothing! They DO, however, indulge in a great deal more vodka before going back for night two, as well as hiding a bottle in their robe.
The second night starts in a fairly similar fashion. Only this time, instead of getting out of her coffin, the witch levitates her coffin and rides around it. After a while, she even stands up in it, thus looking a bit like an undead Silver Surfer. She alternates between zooming around the church in dizzying circles, and RAMMING the chalk circle force field with the coffin. Brutus does a lot more gibbering then praying, but manages to hold out until cock-crow. The witch has tried to curse him, with partial success. He does not go blind, but his hair does turn instantly white.
On his way back to the farm, Brutus dons a goofy fur hat, so people don’t immediately realize what’s happened to him. On arrival, he demands music at once! A peasant pulls out a pipe, and Brutus begins to do a goofy Cossack dance, presumably to prove to himself how not-afraid he is. But his hat falls off, and all the peasantry are shocked to see his white hair.
For night three, the witch pulls out ALL the stops. If he can’t beat him alone, she’ll bring help. She summons forth disembodied gray arms that emerge from the walls and the floor. She summons vampires, werewolves, skeletons, ghouls, gargoyles and all manner of unpleasantries. The level of special-effects technology is not very advanced, but the artistry with which that tech is used is pretty great. As are the practical makeup effects; no two of the monsters are identical. This out-in-the-country church is not very big, and now it is FULL of revenants. But they still can’t break the protective circle.
At last, the witch decides to summon… VIY! Even the other monsters are scared when they hear his name! The thumps of his footsteps are audible as he approaches the church door. It opens, and he strides in – an immensely broad humanoid figure, with a huge head but no neck as such. Notably, his huge eyeballs are covered with enormous flaps of skin that reach down to his chin. “I cannot see anything. Lift up my eyebrows.” Two of the vampires do so. Brutus, against his better judgment, looks at Viy. When he sees Viy, Viy sees him, which apparently breaks the power of the circle. Monsters leap upon Brutus from all sides, burying him completely beneath them.
Sadly for them, however, the monsters are having so much fun that they lost track of time. The cock crows. The monsters flee for the windows, but mostly die half out of them. The witch reverts to her crone form, and lies back upon the altar, hopefully never to rise again. Since this is a RUSSIAN story, Brutus also fails to rise, having apparently died of fright.
That’s the main outline, though I’ve certainly left out a bunch of detail. There’s some great scenery, nifty historical costumes and scenes of peasant life. The lead actors are fantastic; even without subtitles I’m sure one could follow the plot from the action and facial expressions. And the final night has some virtuoso (if low-tech) effects work. Recommended.