Monday, July 16, 2012

Viy (1967)

... aka: Вий
... aka: Vij
... aka: Viy or Spirit of Evil

Directed by:
Georgi Kropachyov
Konstantin Yershov

Based on the short novel by Nikolai V. Gogol (the same basis for Mario Bava's classic BLACK SUNDAY), this was one of the first traditional horror films made in the Soviet Union since the silent era and remains one of the only notable genre efforts produced there. After being released into the world from seminary, three poor young students - Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov), Khaliava (Vadim Zakharchenko) and Gorobetz (Vladimir Salnikov) set out to find a place to sleep and some grub. They end up at an ugly old lady's farmhouse. She claims she has nothing for them to eat and insists the three men each sleep in separate places. Gorobetz is allowed into the home, Khaliava is to sleep in the loft and Khoma gets to sleep in the barn next to the pigs and cattle. While trying to go to sleep, Khoma is surprised when the old lady gets in his face, then hops on his back, grabs her broomstick and starts riding him around like a horse. The two float up into the sky, but eventually crash back down to earth. Khoma grabs a stick and starts beating her with it until she transforms into a beautiful young woman. Understandably freaked out, he flees back to town and the seminary. There, his teacher informs him that a dying girl (Natalya Varley) and her father (Aleksei Glazyrin) have requested Khoma's services in reading her her final rites. The strange thing is, Khoma doesn't even know them.

Put on a carriage with a handful of older men instructed not to let him run off, Khoma is delivered to the village, but the men arrive too late for healing prayer; the girl has passed on. Khoma goes to meet with the girl's father and learns that he has no clue what mysterious illness claimed his child's life but that his daughter had specified until her dying breath that Khoma was to be the one to recite the prayers to deliver her soul. Even stranger, the girl looks an awful lot like the young beauty the old witch had transformed into. Khoma - a goofy, immature guy who likes to drink and doesn't really take his religious or teachings all that seriously - is locked inside the church with the body to do his work. He's been enlisted for just three days of service but it doesn't take him that long to realize that an evil force has inhabited the girl's soul. On his first night, the corpse cries blood, candles go out by themselves and the girl finally rises from her coffin. Khoma is able to keep her at bay by constant prayer and drawing a sacred circle with chalk around his pulpit. By dawn, the young woman has returned to her coffin.

The following night, Khoma returns to the church to continue his prayers, but this time he comes in with a bottle of vodka in his jacket to get him through the night. The girl awakens and flies around the room in her levitating coffin, but Khoma's sacred circle again protects him. Still, the young woman is able to curse him and turn all of his hair white. Frightened by the prospect of a third and final night of prayer in the church, Khoma tries to flee the village but it caught. He's given an ultimatum by the young woman's father: 1000 gold pieces for completing his task, or 1000 lashings if he decides to back out. With help from plenty of vodka, Khoma is able to work up the courage for another try at an exorcism... Only this time, the girl has decided to invite along some of her hellish friends...

For much of the scant 72-minute run time, the film is tonally uneven, wavering between comedy, drama and horror rather uneasily at times. Thankfully, it goes from being just OK to completely awesome in its final ten or so minutes with some really imaginative and astounding otherworldly effects. When the girl summons forth her buddies from Hades, we're treated to a wonderful array of abstract, nightmarish creatures. Hands emerge from a wall and grow to a giant size and a skeleton with clanking bones, a six-headed skeleton bird and a mutant cat all appear. Many grey-painted demons, some with multiple noses, some with multiple eyes, some skull-faced, some with bats wings or elongated chins, appear, and finally a huge demon so big that each of his footsteps shake the room shows up. This sequence by itself justifies seeing this movie. The film utilizes some very interesting camerawork too, such as 360 degree camera spins, plus some early green screen work. The architecture, costumes and rural Russian ambiance also provide interest.

Never released on VHS in America, this was finally issued on DVD by Image Entertainment in 2001. It's a very nice quality print.


Evil Town (1984)

Directed by:
"Edward Collins" (Curtis Hanson)
Mardi Rustam
Larry Spiegel
Peter S. Traynor

The decade-and-a-half journey Evil Town took before it was mass distributed is a tale more interesting than the film itself. Noting that there were no less than four different directors on this project; Curtis Hanson, Larry Spiegel, Peter S. Traynor and Mardi Rustam (the latter credited separately as having directed "additional sequences") will immediately clue one in to the fact this is a patchwork film. Footage is weaved in from at least three different shoots from at least three different times, dating way back to October 1973. Much of the footage - and plot - is from a project that began life as God Bless Grandma and Grandpa, which boasted a cast of familiar veteran character actors in supporting roles but was just barely released in 1974. Some sources claim it wasn't released at all, though there are posters, advertising materials and reviews from back then that state otherwise. The film had been re-titled multiple times along the way to add to the confusion. Some sources claim it was known during production as Town of Bloody Horror. It then became God Bless Dr. Shagetz. Several posters were then distributed; one with the "Bless" x'd out and "Damn" added over top to create God Damn Dr. Shagetz and another titled simply Dr. Shagetz. One of the reviews from a sneak preview referred to it as Crazy Dr. Shagetz. The film was submitted to the MPAA for a rating in 1974, which means a completed cut existed at one point. Either way, very few people actually saw this film back then and it was an extremely limited release at best.

Supposedly, future Oscar-winner Curtis Hanson (who opted for the alias "Edward Collins") began this film but either quit or was fired, so producer Peter S. Traynor (who co-owned the production company that financed the project) stepped in and finished it. Traynor was later sued by investors in his company and was indicted for multiple counts of fraud in the late 1970s. The ruling would be overturned because of spotty juror attendance, but I suppose the damage was already done by that point. In the early 80s, Mardi Rustam purchased the completed Dr. Shagetz film and instead of just releasing it as is, he decided to spice it up by adding some nudity and more action to prepare it for home video. Some sources claim that Rustam also used footage from a abandoned, unfinished horror film, which may be Spiegel's contribution. Since there are multiple subplots, it's not a hard story to believe. All of the footage was completely edited together and ready to go by no later than 1984 (several sources say 1983), but it took three more years before the film saw the light of day on VHS. TransWorld decided to bite and issued the film in a box that misled potential renters into thinking they were getting a zombie film.

Welcome to the small town of, uh, Smalltown. Yes indeedy that's the name. Elevation 13. Population 666. A family of four passing through makes the mistake of stopping by friendly old Earl's (E.J. André) gas station and end up prisoner in a sinister clinic hooked up to some blood-pumping machines instead. Meanwhile, four young hippies from L.A.; Christopher (James Keach), his girlfriend Julie (Michele Marsh), Mike (Robert Walker Jr.) and his girlfriend Linda (Doria Cook), end up swinging into town and have some problems with their van overheating. They arrange for Earl to fix it and camp out that evening; catching someone spying on them from the brush. The two couples return to town the next day to pick up their van, but they're told they have engine troubles and are forced to stay on a few of extra days. Lyle (Dabbs Greer) and Mildred (Lurene Tuttle), who had lost a son and are excited about having some company, are the extremely hospitable elderly couple who put them up while they're in town.

The town is full of outwardly charming old timers, but strangely there are no children or young adults anywhere to be found. By the time Chris and company catch on that something's off with the populace, most of them have already washed down Clarissa's world famous buttermilk donuts with some drugged tea. Only Chris escapes but he's soon hunted down by a mob of angry citizens and then learns the the secret of Smalltown. Dr. Schaeffer (renamed from Dr. Shagetz but still played by Dean Jagger) is sick of old people getting pushed around and has come up with a special formula to help the elderly live way past their expiration date. Young people who show up in the area are kidnapped and brought to the clinic where the "x factor chemical in the pituitary" is removed. The brain damaged victims who've had their chemicals tapped out are kept in straight jackets in a caged room waiting to be disposed of. In between all of this are the newly added, more exploitative scenes.

The new footage can be broken down into two basic parts. The primary subplot concerns sadistic garage mechanics Harry (Keith Hefner) and Wally (Greg Finley), who are bored and decide to head out to a nearby campground to have some "fun" with a few young campers. And by fun, I mean kidnapping and raping them (the females at least), then handing them over to the clinic when they're done. Dianne (Lynda Wiesmeier) feels uncomfortable necking outside ("I just have a feeling all these trees are watching us!") so she convinces her boyfriend Tony (Scott Hunter) to move the action to the car. The mechanics get to them first, knock them out and tie them up. They drag Dianne back to the gas station and rape her, then take Tony to the clinic to be another specimen. Two other girls; Terrie (Christie Houser) and her squeaky-voiced airhead friend Karen (Noelle Harling) are also kidnapped. The second portion of the new footage are scenes set at the clinic spliced in the with old scenes set at the clinic. In these, a man escapes, karate kicks a doctor and an orderly and goes on the lam. Jillian Kesner was added as the doctor's assistant and spends most of her time standing in the lobby talking to people or on the phone.

The original Shagetz footage is slow and a bit bland, but it isn't completely awful. Having many fine character actors on hand (including Hope Summers, Regis Toomey and Richard Hale) is a huge plus. Scenes of the old people attacking with syringes, boards and shotguns, pulling hair or getting thrown around, punched or kicked - which are usually put in slow-motion - are strange to put it mildly. Unfortunately, I cannot really factor the original footage into my grade: I have to factor how well all of the new footage complements the original footage. Considering the new footage is often poorly spliced in, has awful acting and dialogue, doesn't quite match up looks-wise and sticks thematically close to the original concept yet adds nothing interesting to it, I'd say not very well. The only possible point of interest is a gratuitous topless appearance by large-breasted Playboy Playmate Wiesmeier, though you could always just check out one of her pictorials instead. There's very little violence and the film is nearly completely bloodless. If Shagetz in its original form surfaces it will receive its own separate review here, but in the meantime, this is unfortunately the best we've got.

Rustam recycled the garage mechanic characters, the evil clinic and the kidnappings, while adding a new alien angle, hiring some better-known actors and upping the nudity and violence considerably, for EVILS OF THE NIGHT (1985).

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...