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May 22, 2015

The internet has given rise to a certain subgenre of horror literature called, by its fans, “creepypasta”. These smallish tales — often closer to sketches of core ideas than fully-developed stories — are easily copied and shared, creating a sort of folk-literature; the computer screen as high-speed hearthside. But, like more traditional folktales, hearing some of the best of these can depend on what communities you frequent and how good the local storytellers are, and so there’s a niche for people who collect, critique, and sometimes create their own entries in the genre.

The same thing happened for folklore in the early 19th century. In the west, we’re probably most familiar with the Brothers Grimm as archivers of our oral traditions. But Eastern Europe had its own stories with their own particular feel, and Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol’s grotesqueries feel right at home next to both Western contemporaries like Poe and the more modern fare coming out of creepypasta message boards.

The problem is that, like “Jeff the Killer” or “Slenderman”, Gogol’s stories don’t often work outside of relatively short yarns, and trying to shoehorn them into an effects-driven feature film format just doesn’t work. So when Oleg Stepchenko tries to adapt Viy — dubbed into English as Forbidden Empire — he does a similar kind of ridiculous violence to the underlying story as we saw in the likes of Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.

Gogol’s own story is marvelously creepy: three seminary students spend the night at a small farmhouse. One of them, Khoma (co-writer Alexey Petrukhin), narrowly escapes the snares of a witch, but she’s not done with him yet. She poses as the recently-deceased daughter of a rich cossack, her dying wish that Khoma pray over her body for three nights, during which she directs all manner of evil spirits against him. But his chalk circle of protection makes Khoma invisible to all of them, until on the third night she summons Viy, who can see everything.

To this elegant core, Stepchenko bolts on a wandering English cartographer Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng) — based on the French traveler Guillaume le Vasseur de Beauplain — who stumbles on Khoma’s colleagues, Khalyava (Ivan Mokhovikov) and Gorobets (Anatoli Gushchin). They tell him of the village where Khoma met his end; the villagers overcome by superstition, sequestering themselves away from the world. Green enlists the aid of a local man, Petrus (Aleksey Chadov), to investigate using the methods of science, and to use the high promontory of the church as a vantage point from which to draw his maps, uncovering the real story of Khoma’s witch in the process.

The movie basically exists as a delivery vehicle for CGI visualizations of the fantastic and grotesque turns of the story. Unfortunately, all of them fall flat, playing more as broad slapstick than as horror. Large sections were re-shot in 3D, and scene after scene is obviously composed for the effect that’s missing in the Western, generally non-theatrical release. It stands as a master class in how to take a finely-crafted short story and, by consistently making it “bigger and better”, kill off everything that worked in the first place.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.
This review also appears on Punch Drunk Critics.

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