VIY is the first- and as far as I know the only – Soviet Union horror movie in existence. It’s an obscure film that’s available streaming on Shudder. When I say ‘obscure,’ I mean obscure to me. Before watching this, I’d never heard of it, and I’ve seen a lot of horror movies.

The plot: Khoma is a Russian monk granted time off for the holidays. He and his two traveling companions get lost and end up at a farm. The old woman of the house lets them stay the night, but they all have to sleep in different places. The fact that she tells them that her house is full of people and she’s alone except for the farm animals is a tip-off that she might not be on the up-and-up.

Sure enough, the old woman turns out to be a witch. She hag-rides Khoma, flying him all over the countryside. When dawn breaks, the spell wears off. Khoma beats her half to death and is shocked when she transforms into a beautiful young woman.

Khoma races back to the monastery, but when he arrives there’s more bad news. The daughter of a rich landowner has been found beaten half to death, and wants him to say prayers for her soul. ‘Want’ is a misleading word, because Khoma is going whether he wants to or not. The landowner’s men make sure of that.

The landowner’s daughter dies before Khoma arrives, which means he’s forced to spend three nights locked in a church with a dead body, saying prayers for her soul. Except this young woman isn’t as dead as she seems…

I liked VIY a lot. Khoma isn’t a particularly likable guy, so I didn’t feel sorry for him. The animation is very late 60’s, reminding me of Disney movies I saw as a kid, but still looks fine. The makeup is great. Overall, a fine horror movie that’s as much fantasy as horror. And I still can’t figure out why I’ve never heard of it.

Temple Wood: A Quest for Freedom

 The first time I watched Temple Wood: A Quest for Freedom I figured I was missing something. So I watched it a second time. Now I’m thinking this movie’s mode of linear storytelling is a trap and Temple Wood isn’t supposed to make sense. For example: the Quest for Freedom part of the title means nothing in the context of the movie.

When Professor Martenson disappears his (graduate) student Martin decides to investigate, contaminating a crime scene and finding a book in the professor’s study about Temple Wood. Despite it being the 21st century, Professor Martenson writes using a dip pen. Martin himself uses a Walkman instead of an iPod. Could this be a clue?

For reasons I don’t understand Martin decides to visit Temple Wood. He treks to the town of Kilmartin, which is, as his landlady points out, an unfortunate name for him. Martin’s rented attic room is bright yellow and full of kids’ books and toys. Some of the movie’s imagery suggests that Martin himself is a child. There are also weird sexual images; the most disturbing sequence in this movie is sexual.

Martin enters Temple Wood, a stone circle covered in rocks. Was the site decommissioned by the ancients – or are they trying to imprison something? Beats me! Martin visits Temple Wood a second time that night in his dreams and sees a group of cultists performing a ceremony. He runs away from the cultists in a goofy-looking scene and then meets the Sunflower Man. I’m not sure if the Sunflower Man is supposed to be scary, funny, stupid, or all of the above. The Sunflower Man is surreal, which I like. The Sunflower Man is part of a dream, and dreams aren’t supposed to make sense.

The plot moves on, but it doesn’t really matter. In the end what we have is a hodgepodge of bizarre imagery: the Sunflower Man, a yellow room, a pair of shoes with the laces tied together and Martin waving his weenie around and yelling. It’s possible Martin is crazy. He sees people appear and disappear. He doesn’t interact with anyone but his landlady, whom he sees as a mommy/lover figure. Martin resembles a Lovecraftian hero in his total isolation. He wears a single set of clothes, carries around a copy of the Necronomicon and is a social outcast.

Temple Wood is short, about an hour long. I couldn’t figure it out, but I’m not sure that’s a valid critique. The movie may be satire, or perhaps it has a deeper meaning I’m missing. Maybe I should watch it a third time…

Definitely worth a viewing, but watch at your own risk!

Horror Hotel/City of the Dead

I learned about Horror Hotel, aka City of the Dead, in an article I read about folk horror. To be honest, I’d never heard of this movie and thus didn’t expect much. I was pleasantly surprised. Released in 1960 in black-and-white, Horror Hotel is one of the better horror flicks I’ve seen in the past few months.

The plot: college student Nan Barlow travels to the town of Whitewood, Massachusetts on the recommendation of her professor (Christopher Lee) to research witchcraft. She goes despite the protests of her boyfriend and her brother, who are so obnoxious I think she makes the trek to get away from them. Nan picks up a hitchhiker named Jethrow enroute to Whitewood. When Jethrow vanishes upon arrival Nan doesn’t blink an eye, which means she either doesn’t believe in the supernatural or isn’t too smart. She definitely didn’t read the script.

Whitewood is the type of place that would make most sane people turn around and drive away. It’s always foggy and dark. The blind priest warns Nan off. Ghostly singing voices drift up from the trapdoor in our heroine’s room. The woman who owns the Raven’s Inn looks just like Elizabeth Selwyn, burned for witchcraft almost three hundred years ago. Clueless Nan soldiers on, at one point reading a treatise on human sacrifice to the head witch, who does a fine job keeping a straight face.

Horror Hotel is not perfect. Neither of the movie’s titles fit. The jazzy bebop soundtrack doesn’t work. Mr. Lee is great as usual, but some of the other acting is dreadful. However, Horror Hotel is well written and atmospheric, with a few genuinely disturbing scenes and a riveting ending.


Halloween Day Four: Final Prayer

A late addition to my list, Final Prayer also goes by the title of The Borderlands. This movie is another recommendation of British horror writer Adam Nevill. The article in question is here, and well worth reading. Final Prayer is a British found-footage movie, available to rent on Amazon Prime for $3.99 (cheap!).

The plot: a priest records a paranormal experience in his church during a baptism (which turns out to be important). The Vatican’s spook squad gets called in, so I guess the priest isn’t Anglican. The boys from Rome send in an investigative team to debunk the video. They’re the anti-miracle squad, I guess.

The team consists of Deacon, a Scottish priest; Gray, the tech guy; and Father Amidon, who hates Deacon. The priests are skeptics, which makes sense considering that 99% of the cases they investigate are utter bullshit. Unfortunately, this case is the other 1%.

The town is in the middle of nowhere, a place where the local kids light sheep on fire for fun. The investigators must wear head cameras for the duration of the investigation to establish a timeline. The priests think their fellow priest is making the whole thing up; Gray, who isn’t religious, believes him.

Gray puts video cameras and microphones all over the church. Most of the phenomena he records is auditory, creaks and groans and bumps and crying children. We learn that the church is built over a pagan worship site, where the locals worshipped things that came to Britain before Christ.

Is Final Prayer scary? I got through it without too much of a problem, although I did let out a few shrieks that startled my cat. There are jump scares. The acting is good. We come to know and like Deacon and Gray, although neither is all that likable at the movie’s start.

I got confused a little at Final Prayer’s climax, because two of the characters wear glasses and I got them mixed up. Apparently, the ending is controversial. I’m not sure how I feel about it, myself. I guess I’d need to see the movie again.

Final Prayer is worth a view, especially if you like found-footage. The best line of the movie comes during a pub conversation between Gray and Deacon, where Gray says (paraphrasing) – ‘the pagans worshipped things that were there. You worship something that’s not there. If your god and their god fought, I know who I’d put my money on.’

Not as scary as Across the River, but still good. Recommended!