October 22, 2020

when horror movies came to the Soviet Union


The communist leaders came to impose socialist realism as a standard of artistic compliance practically forced in some historical periods, conditioning the trajectory of illustrious censors such as Sergei M. Eisenstein, the person in charge of the iconic The battleship Potemkin. Still, the audiovisual of communist Europe also explored cinematographic genres associated with imagination. Science fiction, which could then project confidence into worlds to come, was a relatively relevant genre. And the fantasy had reference cultivators like the Czech director Karel Zeman, who adapted The Adventures of Baron Münchausen or several books of Jules verne.

Apocalypse, despair and satire in the science fiction of a collapsing USSR

Apocalypse, despair and satire in the science fiction of a collapsing USSR

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Horror movies, on the other hand, did not seem to be part of the Soviet audiovisual. Polish fantasy comedy The white lady, a friendly satire around the socio-political order of statist communism and its bureaucracies, suggests a possible motive: it portrays the antipathy towards cultural manifestations that could fuel or perpetuate superstitions. Ghost stories or other strong horror audiovisual traditions could be considered questionable from that point of view. Perhaps one of the most disturbing films of communist Europe, Mother Juana de los Angeles, marked the psychological and rational explanation to a religious drama about supposedly possessed nuns that could be considered close to the disturbing Ingmar Bergman of The face.

It is worth wondering why a more materialistic horror film, far from spiritism and animism, was not developed in Eastern Europe. Beyond these questions, the birth of the terrifying audiovisual in the USSR tends to be dated quite late. The Viy, an adaptation of a story written by Nikolai Gogol, is considered the first horror film made in the USSR. The Sitges festival recovers this classic through a session that will take place on October 15. The projection is located within the Seven Chances section, dedicated to the recovery of rarities and relevant but not very popular contributions to the tradition of fantastic cinema.

Vengeful sorcery with final phantasmagoria

The Viy perhaps it is not a horror film as understood by a current viewer, intoxicated by proposals based on shocks. Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov signed a story of folk horror with more folk (even if it is syncretic and imagined by Gogol) what horror, watered by a humor that to a great extent ridicules its unheroic protagonist. Khoma Brutus is a seminarian who, during a recreational trip, comes into contact with a witch. Brutus defends God’s side, and also his chastity, in such a violent way that he kills the Satan worshiper, who turns out to be the daughter of the local feudal oligarch. The protagonist is forced to watch over the corpse in an empty church for three nights, during which the sorceress and other demonic beings will put his bravery and sanity to the test.

The narration includes some darts about the authentic fear linked to feudal power and its arbitrariness. And it also incorporates a few images of monstrous femininity, striking for the twinning of the beautiful and the sinister through the makeup and lighting of the face of actress Natalya Varley. From a modern perspective, the overall result looks like a smooth and aesthetically cared version of gothic horror, full of chandeliers and large half-melted candles, that filmmakers such as Mario Bava, Roger Corman and Terence Fisher had been exploring for a decade from Italy, the United States. or the UK.

Filmmakers Yershov and Kropachyov’s proposal had its own logic. The film was in tune with the mild chills that we could find in exponents of haunting fantastic from Eastern Europe like The manuscript found in Zaragoza, another literary adaptation set in the medieval past. The authors stayed away from the international trend of increasing doses of graphic violence and eroticization in celluloid gothicism as the sixties progressed… and the censorship of Hollywood fell, reconverted into an age classification system.

The most outstanding part of The Viy is surely the final phantasmagoria, a grotesque encounter of all kinds of monsters and the reanimated dead that was carried out with multiple techniques (carpentry, makeup, animation in stop motion…). This spectacular sequence practically guarantees, by itself, the inclusion of the film in the anthologies of the genre. The good work of Aleskandr Ptushko, a kind of Soviet equivalent of Ray Harryhausen, that North American master of special effects known for his work in works such as Jason and the Argonauts or Wrath of the Titans. Ptushko was, in addition to co-writer of The Viy, the designer and executor of some of his tricks.

What came next

After the premiere of The Viy, Soviet cinematography remained little given to the cultivation of horror. Other cinematographies in the area were more open. In Poland, Lokis, Professor Wittembach’s experiences It was an approach to the gothic fictions of cursed lines in decaying mansions, although the cerebral approach of those responsible channeled the proposal towards the field of mystery narrative. A young Andrzej Zulawski, future director of Possession, would rehearse a kind of horror cinema of history (and of the periodic military invasions of his native country) through his first two, furious and extremely intense films: The third part of the night Y The devil. Using this broad and flexible conception of film horror, perhaps the great film nightmare of the Soviet Union would be the war drama. Massacre: come and see.

Co-productions with Fantastic Italy and strictly local titles such as the vampire TV movie would come from Yugoslavia Leptirica, another exponent of folk horror conceived from the other side of El Hierro Curtain. In Czechoslovakia, Jaromil Jires would sign a memorable murky tale, pulsing with sinister images, such as Valerie and her week of wonders. Little by little, the opening of the filmmakers, the changes of governments and a cultural globalization with evident echoes of the American conquest of the imaginary, would end up multiplying the examples of audiovisual from eastern Europe that used dialects increasingly closer to the common language of Hollywood terror.

The Viy, the monster that sees everything, would appear again on the screens. In recent Russia, it has done so twice. Transylvania, the forbidden empire It was another rather friendly approach, where constant doses of humor (understood as a concession to younger audiences) coexist with the digital gloom typical of a Tim Burton impersonator. The most appreciable television miniseries Gogol, a kind of Elementary Slavic and period with the well-known protagonist endowed with few social skills, it would include a narrative pirouette: the same writer of the story, reconceived as a detective of the supernatural, is the protagonist of the story.

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