Thursday, May 19, 2022

Italy (via Moldova and Ukraine)

Black Sunday
Viy (1967)

On Twitter, someone recently posted, “I heard someone say once that you can't be a Christian and like horror movies.” 

We take anything said on social media quite seriously here at Movie Churches, so we find this concerning. After all, we have watched quite a number of horror films, and though some have been very bad indeed, we have to admit we’ve enjoyed watching many of them (including some of the bad ones.)

But even more concerning is not just that there are horror film viewers who are Christians, but there are even Christian horror filmmakers! Scott Derrickson, the director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, argued that  Christians -- as believers in the supernatural -- were best equipped to make horror films. William Peter Blatty, who wrote the screenplay for The Exorcist and the novel on which it was based, considered his work an expression of his faith. And the director of one of today’s films, Mario Bava, was described in his life as a staunch Catholic. (A strange anecdote about the making of Bava’s one sex comedy, Four Times That Night, says that the director left the work to the assistant director when nudity was required on the set.)

So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that in Black Sunday, considered the first Italian horror film and a seminal work in the genre, a priest is one of the heroes in the film.

It should be noted that this film provides several stops for our European vacation. Though the film was made in Italy, it is set in Moldavia, a European principality that is no more. It's based on a short story, “The Viy” by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol (who was born and raised in Ukraine).

Actually, the tale Bava tells is not even close to the story by Gogol.

The story of Black Sunday begins in the 1630s as a woman in Moldavia is about to be burned for witchcraft. But first, a bronze devil mask is attached to her face with spikes. A storm breaks out and keeps the woman, Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) from being burned at the stake; instead, she’s just buried alive. Two hundred years later she’s found in a grave by Dr. Choma Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant, Dr. Andrej Gorobec (John Richardson). Kruvajan accidentally brings Asa back to life and things, needless to say, start to go bad. Asa brings back her brother and lover, Igor Javutich (Arturo Dominici), to help with the mayhem.

Meanwhile, Gorobec meets a young woman, Katia Vajda, who looks just like her ancestor, Asa. The two fall in love, but Asa plans to take Katia’s young body as her own to continue her plans for death and destruction. Gorobec goes to a priest (Antonio Pierfederici) for help. The priest knows that Asa killed Kruvajan and brought him back as one of the undead. The priest also knows the way to kill the undead: a nail through the eye. (I don’t remember any classes on killing the undead in my seminary, but apparently Orthodox priests have a very different curriculum.)

The priest also leads the angry crowd of townsfolk with torches that finally get around to burning Asa to death. Understandably, with the good Catholic Bava telling the story, the priests (even the Orthodox priests) are the heroes.

Priests don’t come off nearly so well in 1967’s Viy, a much more faithful telling of Gogol’s short story. Co-writers/co-directors Konstantin Ershov and Gerogiy Kropachyov needed to answer to Soviet authorities when they made this film, and the government at that time was not fond of religion.

Viy tells pretty much the same story as Gogol told. Gogol claimed it was a folk tale, but there is no record of it existing before he told it.

Three seminarians are lost while on vacation and come to what they believe is a farmhouse, but actually, it is the home of an old witch (Kinolay Kutuzov), who tries to seduce one of the men, Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov). Instead, she ends up taking him on a wild flight in the air. The man’s prayers, perhaps, bring them down to the ground where Khoma beats the witch with a club.

When Khoma returns to his seminary, the Rector (Pyotr Vesklyarov) tells him he must go to the home of a rich landowner and pray for the man’s dying daughter. But when he arrives, he finds that the daughter is already dead. The father tells Khoma that his daughter asked for the seminarian by name before she died. She requested that Khoma would stay three nights with her corpse, praying for her soul. He calls Khoma a saint, but the young man insists he isn’t (in fact, last Lent, he claims to have snuck off to be with the butcher’s wife).

After promises of gold and threats of lashing, Khoma goes to the church, where he is locked in with the corpse for three nights. On the first night, the young woman (Natalya Varley) comes back to life and taunts Khoma, but he protects himself by drawing a chalk circle on the floor around himself and prays. The second night, Khoma fortifies himself by getting drunk. The corpse comes after him in a flying coffin, but he again survives the night. On the third night, the woman transforms into the witch and summons all sorts of demons, including Viy, a demon who can see all things. Khoma doesn’t survive the night. His friends mourn him but wonder if he might have survived if only he had a little more courage.

The clergy in this film are not heroes. The Rector sends Khoma because he is given a bribe. When the seminarians are on vacation, they get drunk, steal food, and assault women. These characters aren’t too wonderful in the original short story but are worse in the film.

It's an interesting piece of trivia that Black Sunday is considered the first Italian horror film and Viy is considered the first horror film. I believe Christians can learn from both films: to be like the priest in Black Sunday who earns our Four Steeple rating, and to not be like the seminarians of Viy who earn a One Steeple Rating.

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