Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Viy: dark-fantasy swashbuckling adventure from Russia

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viy-forbidden-empire-2014-posterOn the second of February, barring accidents, a Russian film will hit the screens (in Russia, if nowhere else) that features Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jackie Chan, Rutger Hauer and Charles Dance.
And it’s a sequel.
So, while we wait for the second serving, let me introduce you to an adventure movie you might have missed, and that, while not exactly a masterpiece, still is well worth a viewing if you feel like a serving of weird action fantasy, with a side of Hammer-like horror.
So, as we wait for Viy 2: Journey to China, let’s talk about Viy: Forbidden Empire.

Everything starts with Viy, a horror story by Russian master Nicolaj Gogol. The story, published in 18351, tells of a confrontation between a seminar student and a witch that seems unwilling to stay dead.
The story is a classic folk-horror yarn, and it was adapted a number of times to the big screen – most notably by Mario Bava in his Black Sunday.

black-sunday-mario-bava

In 2005, two Russian filmmakers decided to shoot an updated version of the story, to be released on Gogol’s anniversary in 2009.
Things got complicated, and the movie only hit the screens in 2014 in Russia, and in 2015 in the USA and UK.
For the international release, the title Viy was changed into Forbidden Empire. Or Forbidden Kingdom, depending on the side of the Atlantic.
Just because.

viy_3d_still__5_large

The heavily refurbished plot opens in 1701 and finds British cartographer Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng – a very solid and accomplished British character actor) on the run from the angry father of his fiancee, and embarking in a globe-spanning journey of exploration and scientific research. Traveling in a strange clock-punk sort of stagecoach, filled with hi-tech (for the 18th century) equipment, Green reaches Ukraine and a strange village that appears to be under a curse. A positivist materialist, Green decides to investigate. There is a haunted building, there is a very human evil afoot but also something decidedly sinister.

The movie uses Gogol’s story as a preamble, and ditches the hardest-hitting horror for a more dark-fantasy approach, with some comedic elements thrown in.
Yes, this is the sort of movie in which the main character tries to escape a lynch mob by stating “I am a British citizen!”

forbiddenempire2

I’ve seen the movie pilloried far and wide for its shaky plot and silly comedy, for its disrespect for the original source and for its paper-thin, cliche-laden characterization and stilted dialogue. And it’s all true, and it can’t be denied that the potential was there, but was never developed.
“Just think what Guillermo del Toro would have done with that!”
And yet it works. Oh, this is no cinematic masterpiece for sure, but it sits well in the same league with Hansel & Gretel Monster Hunters, The Brothers Grimm and Van Helsing: good cast, nice effects (both digital and mechanical, in this), a plot that’s basically an excuse to show some great set-pieces, and characters that are paper-thin.
It’s entertaining, and if the plot meanders and the dialogues are nothing to write home about, Jason Flemyng’s acting makes it more than bearable, and Charles Dance’s excellent too. And Olga Zaytseva, the young lady portraying the not-so-dead witch, is certainly hard to ignore.

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And despite the critical panning, the movie was successful enough to get a sequel, that as I said in the opening of this post, is set in China – as Jonathan Green continues his travels east – and this time the cast includes a few heavy weights.
The Russians will see it in about a week.
Will we ever catch it? If nothing else, the presence of Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger will increase the chances of a proper distribution.
But the real question is: will the franchise finally fulfill its potential?
That’s a hard one.
So, here’s the trailer, while we wait. And yes, it’s in Russian. Sorry ‘bout that.

Looks like the screenwriters stole a page or five from Pirates of the Caribbean but really, this one can’t be worse than the last two entries in that franchise.


  1. that you can find on Project Gutenberg, and is most recommended if you are into supernatural and weird fiction. 
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Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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