J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Forbidden Empire: Fighting Evil, One Map at a Time

The 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).

British 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.

Distressed 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 disorienting effect.

Ironically, 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.

On 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).

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