1967 Mofilm adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s short story “Viy” is considered the
first Soviet horror movie, aside from whatever real life torture porn might be
hidden away in the KGB archives. Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Stepchenko originally
set out to remake Gogol’s tale, but the scope of their long stop-and-start production
expanded over the years. The guts of the macabre story are still there, but
there is also plenty of witch-hunting and map-making in Stepchenko’s Forbidden Empire (as it was bafflingly
retitled for the international market), which launches tomorrow on VOD (trailer here).
cartographer Jonathan Green hopes to make his fame and fortune mapping the
sleepy hamlets of southern Europe and Ukraine, so he can return home to claim
his loyal fiancée from her judgmental father. However, he will reluctantly find
himself swept up in the dirty dealings of a small village. As will soon be
explained to Green, when a wealthy Cossack’s daughter died under suspiciously
supernatural circumstances, a baffled divinity student was brought in to prey
over her body for three bump-filled nights, per her last request. The precise
blow-by-blow of that third night will be revealed over time. Regardless, the
aftermath was disturbing enough for the sheepish villagers to seal off the
church and shun it thereafter.
his daughter never had a proper funeral, the Cossack hires Green to map the
area surrounding the church. You might well ask why, but it certainly shakes
things up. Before long, Green and a mute servant girl are accused of
witchcraft, while the malevolent spirit known as Viy continues to terrorize the
village with impunity.
Empire is a weird viewing
experience, due to a number of factors, including the feverish religious imagery,
the fairy tale-like stylization of the sets and backdrops, and the disembodied dubbing
voices. Frankly, this film would probably be a good deal better with subtitles.
Czech Airlines used to show a garish looking 1960s fairy tale film, sans
subtitles, during the breakfast service of its New York bound flights. Watching
Empire produces a similarly
the best sequences by far are those that harken back to the original Viy source material. It is impossible to
not appreciate the scene in which the coffin animated by foul spirits chases
the divinity student throughout the church, trying to ram him like a sinister
bumper car. That is the kind of stuff movie magic is all about.
the other hand, when the narrative focuses on Green, it wildly veers from broad
shticky comedy to demonic horror, throwing-in didactic jabs at religion’s
supposed hostility towards science and reason for good measure. Reportedly,
without the story’s rustic, folkloric elements, the materialistic Soviet
authorities never would have greenlighted the 1967 Viy. However, they would have loved Stepchenko and co-screenwriter
Aleksandr Karpov’s depiction of the venal, power-hungry priest.
There are a lot of bald dudes with Fu Manchu
mustaches in Empire, so it is often
devilishly difficult to differentiate the various cast-members. However, Jason
Flemyng (probably just famous enough to justify some British co-production
investments) is a good sport, pivoting at a moment’s notice to be goofy one
moment and resolute the next. This is a loud, dark, defiantly illogical film,
but at least the resulting spectacle is a strange sight to behold. In short, it
is a mess, but in bizarrely compelling, can’t-stop-watching kind of way.
Recommended accordingly (I guess), Forbidden
Empire hits VOD platforms tomorrow (5/22) and has a special screening at
the Arena Cinema in Los Angeles on Saturday (5/23).
Labels: Russian Cinema, Viy, VOD