Viy (Russia 2014)

Rating: ***
Alternate Title: Forbidden Empire (US release)
Review Date: 12/12/15
Director: Oleg Stepchenko
Cast: Jason Flemyng

Based on the classic novel by Nikolai Gogol, "Viy" is the story of an English cartographer named Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng), who is a brilliant scientist with ambitions to accurately map the entire world. Penniless and run out of town by his lover's irate father, Green heads towards Transylvania where he encounters a mysterious Cossack village that's under a terrible curse. As a man of science, he doesn't believe in spiritual or superstitious nonsense, but he experiences things that go well beyond the realm of rational explanation. Unfortunately, all of the trippy hallucinogenic imagery is eventually explained away in true Scooby Doo fashion, which results in an unsatisfactory ending.

The film is a feast for the eyes, and even though the CGI effects and animation are overly cartoonish, the artistry and design are amazing. It's simply a gorgeous film, and very reminiscent of Guillermo del Toro's work. Originally shot in Real 3D, it employs a lot of gratuitous 3D effects that scream for attention and distract from the action, which is unfortunate. It's also unfortunate that the US version of the film is dubbed in English and doesn't come with the original Russian dialog. The dubbing is pretty good for the most part and it helps that Flemyng dubs his own voice, but I suspect that the translation is overly simplified, which robs the material of its rich cultural subtext. There's a lot of fascinating Pagan and Slavic folklore on display in the film, and it's easy to get lost in all of the traditions and imagery. The cast is superb, and the Russian actors are delightful. The music score is as epic as the visual splendor, and overflows with bold and heroic themes of action and adventure. Apart from the film's climax, my biggest criticism would be the inclusion of goofy sight gags, which are aimed at family-friendly viewers in an attempt to artificially lighten the dark and scary tone of the film. Other than that, if you're a fan of eye-popping fantasy horror films, "Viy" is definitely worth checking out.