Viy: Spirit of Evil

Privet, comrades!  Let's stick with 1960s Russian cinema based on classic literature.  Today we've got a great little horror treat called Viy, or Spirit of Evil, based on an 1835 novella by Nikolai Gogol.  They've been having a lot of success with at least two series of Viy films over there in recent years (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan were in the last one), but this is the original film adaptation from 1967.  Fans have been demanding this film on blu for a long time, but word was the film elements were no longer available to bring this film to HD.  But then, in 2016, it came out on BD in Japan.  Was it just an upconvert or what?  Well, it wasn't English friendly anyway, so it really didn't matter.  But maybe it actually was a legit HD version, because Severin have just released an English-friendly blu here in America.  And they're always reliable, right?
The story's about a young seminary student traveling through the country who stays one night in an old woman's barn.  She turns out to be a witch who rides(!) him through the skies before he can finally beat her nearly to death and flee.  He feels free and clear when he returns to school, until the witch's family writes to his headmaster and personally requests the student return to read her last rites in a ceremony that lasts for three nights in an old, wooden church, just him and the body.  And as you might imagine, this dead witch isn't content to just lie still for her murderer.  She might even call out to Viy, the most ancient evil spirit in all the world.
Viy's a lot of fun: fast paced with creative visual effects, funny characters, great dark atmosphere and entertaining camerawork.  Mario Bava took a lot of influence from this film and other works of Gogol, and along with Equinox feels like a dead-on precursor to Sam Raimi's Evil Dead films.  The frantic camera, spinning and diving, even taking on the role of a great evil spirit's POV racing towards the protagonist - a protagonist who's a bit of a dunce, not unlike our beloved Ash.  The cynical conclusion and in particular, the abandoned windmill scene in Army of Darkness and the woodshed fight with the old hag in Drag Me To Hell particularly feel like they share spirits with Viy.
Ruscico released this on DVD in the US back in 2001, distributed by Image, in a nice little special edition.  Pretty much the same disc seems to have been later distributed through most other regions around the world, albeit with different distributors and cover art.  So that's been the default go-to version of this film pretty much forever, until that eventual Japanese blu.  Like I said, it had no English language options, so it wasn't much use to any of us who couldn't understand Russian or Japanese, but it definitely put the bug in our collective ear of a possible HD release in the future.  And Severin have finally delivered on that, releasing a limited edition blu this July, which I believe has already sold out, with a general, standard release due later in the year.
1) 2001 Ruscico/ Image DVD; 2) 2019 Severin BD.
Happily, this is clearly not just an upconvert of the old DVD!  I was a little worried, because their announcement, webpage and even the back of the case evade the question of transfer's origins.  Is it 2k, 4k, from the original negatives, a print or what?  Questions like "is this a newly sourced transfer" have been left frustratingly unanswered on their facebook page.  All we're told is that it's 1080p full HD, and that this blu is "Remastered In HD For The First Time Ever" (so maybe the Japanese blu was an upconvert?).  Oh well, whatever this is, it looks heaps better than what we've had before.  The framing is slightly shifted from 1.31:1 to 1.37:1 and the colors are far richer.  The DVD also had a very serious interlacing problem, which of course is cleared up, and that makes a world of difference.  The level of detail isn't hugely different, but we can make out subtleties that the DVD's SD compression smoothed away.  Grain is light but discernible, its free of any harmful tinkering (i.e. artificial sharpening, edge enhancement or any of that) and both versions have light print damage, but it's all in different places, so this must've been taken from a different source.  It's a bit soft, but that could be down to the original film.  At any rate, this is a far more attractive presentation of this film than we've ever had before, and presumably ever will in future.

Ruscico are terrific when it comes to language options.  They gave us the original Russian - albeit remixed to 5.1 - plus English and French dubs, also in 5.1.  And they provide English, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish subtitles.  Severin dials all that down, but doesn't lose the key elements: the original Russian and the English dub, now in lossless DTS-HD, plus English and English HoH subs.
Ruscico are also pretty good in the supplements department, giving Viy a nice little archival package of historical extras.  They include a vintage biographical documentary (from roughly 1940) on Gogol, which gives some great background to this film.  They include three classic, silent Russian horror films: Satan Exultant (1917), The Portrait (1916) and Queen of Spades (1916).  The Portrait is particularly relevant, as it's also based on a Gogol story.  And they have not just the trailer for Viy, but for six other classic horror and fantasy Russian films.  Plus an insert.  It all makes for a very informative context.

Now, when my Severin disc arrived, I was happy to see it included even more bonus features than were listed on Severin's pre-order page.  First, let's look at what they did tell us about.  They have new interviews with Richard Stanley (who's quite eccentric but equally informed) about the  of Gogol's legendary spirit, and John Leman Riley, who attempts to cover the entire history of Soviet sci-fi and fantasy film.  He knows his stuff, but it was overly ambitious to try to cover that large a topic in a single chat.  They also have the trailer, and the limited edition comes in a very cool slipcover.  That's what we knew about.

But it was a pleasant surprise to see that all three silent films from the old Ruscico DVD have been carried over as well!  The DVD played some silly, artificial projector noise over all three films, which Severin smartly forgoes.  Otherwise, they seem to use the same transfers, but they've gained some ground by giving it some de-interlacing, which softens the thing up and still leaves some ghosting, but definitely looks better.  Here's a quick comparison for all three (you can still click each shot to see 'em full sized), with DVD left and BD right:
It's no surprise Severin's limited edition sold out so quickly, this is a very cool release of a great film that had been crying out for a good blu.  I was worried going in, but while this might not be the fresh 4k scan of the original camera negatives one might've hoped for, this is still a quality HD presentation, with some nice extras to boot.  Owners of the original DVD might want to hang onto it for that Gogol doc, but if you missed it, you should still be quite happy with what you get here.

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