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Soviet Silent Horror (1915-17) September 6th, 2020

Last October I watched 1967’s Russian fantasy-horror film Viy for the first time. If you’re unfamiliar it’s the story of a young drunk priest who accidentally kills a witch. He’s tasked with presiding over her body for three consecutive nights to prepare her body and soul for the afterlife. I won’t go into too many more specifics as to not spoil anything but suffice to say that overall what it lacks in story and character development it makes up for in charming special effects. It’s really something. Anyway, Severin Films produced a stellar blu-ray release last year packed with a modest but impressive array of special features including three silent Russian films from the 1910’s. Boutique home video companies like Severin have a special place in my heart for not only restoring films like Viy but including films too obscure or odd for their own releases, like The Portrait, in their special features. If you’re interested in these kind of niche movies keep an eye out for my future reviews.

If a picture’s worth 1000 words then why don’t they
use any in silent films?

The Portrait is the first of three bonus films on the Viy disc. The first thing I noticed was the runtime of not quite 8 minutes. I don’t know enough about film history to know what the average film runtime was in 1915, but it was just 12 years after Thomas Edison padded his infamous resume by filming the very real execution of Topsy in his film Electrocuting an Elephant… and that only runs about a minute on film but an eternity in my soul. Tesla never killed an elephant, just saying.

The second thing I noticed was the complete lack of title cards or text. Intertitles had been used in film before 1915, so their absence in The Portrait suggests either a lack of technical capability on the part of the production or perhaps their exclusion and reliance on performance and imagery to tell the story was a deliberate creative choice. Their absence leaves the interpretation of the story up to the audience. Here’s mine.

The protagonist purchases a portrait from a shop and takes it home. He hangs it in his small apartment, covers it with a sheet and settles in for a nap. His slumber is haunted by nightmares of the portrait’s animated countenance leering and threatening to harm him. The protagonist fluctuates between awake and asleep as he battles these terrifying fever dreams but at one point he gets up and walks toward the portrait whose painted figure reaches out and grabs it’s frame and leans in close to it’s poor owner. That’s pretty much it. It’s kind of fascinating and clever especially for the time. I suspect the collective unconscious was influenced by the dream like potential of the film medium for so many movies of that time to focus on the mysteries of sleep. The somnambulism of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and the dreamlike visions of Vampyr, each preceded by the nightmares of The Portrait.

The next bonus feature is 1917’s The Queen of Spades. Released a year after The Portrait, The Queen of Spades seems hellbent on surpassing it’s predecessor by doubling it’s runtime, mentioning insomnia in it’s opening intertitle, and simply having intertitles! I really didn’t see this film as anything too special. The effects are interesting (double exposure and interesting jump cuts) but the plot is boring and kind of difficult to follow. The story starts by focusing on a countess plagued by insomnia (see the intertitle) who immediately falls asleep (more like prosomnia) and dreams of some fancy engagement long past where she sits in the same chair she’s just fallen asleep in as a stranger enters her room and then cross dissolve to her in the same chair as an old woman with a young man in her doorway demanding she use her heretofore unmentioned psychic gifts to give him the names of three winning playing cards he can use to win some gambling. She refuses causing him to threaten her with a pistol and causing her to faint and die. He spends the next day and night distraught about the incident and is later visited by her… ghost… specter… dream? I don’t exactly know but whatever it is names the three winning cards. I kind of expect you to see the end coming at this point. He goes to a gambling hall, bets on the first card and wins. The next night he bets on the second card and wins, doubling his winnings from the previous bet like a true daily double. But the third night he bet the farm again. Only this time his last card metaphorically burned down, fell over and then sank into the swamp and he lost it all. His losing card, the Queen of Spades, bearing the visage of the murdered Countess. This loss and the ensuing destitution sends him to a mental institution where he’s haunted by visions of playing cards and uses the straw in his bedding to replay that losing game over and over.

Satan Exultant (or triumphant depending on your translation) rounds out the bonus features on Viy‘s blu-ray. This one’s pretty straightforward. It’s a dark and stormy night (for real, that’s the first intertitle). Disguised as a limping vagrant, Satan comes to town seeking shelter from the storm. His corrupting influences tempts the local pastor to embrace sin. Satan Exultant is like the inverse of Häxan, where the latter criticizes the superstitions and foolish dogmas of christianity the former supports them. Benjamin Christensen’s memorable performance as the devil in Häxan is eerily similar to Alexsandr Chabrov’s performance as satan in Satan Exultant; I wonder if the latter influenced the former?

I wouldn’t have sought out these films if they weren’t included in Viy‘s bonus features. They don’t have the kind of broad appeal that gets mainstream attention but I enjoyed them nevertheless. I wonder how much more I’d appreciate the subtleties and veiled social criticisms I assume are present in the shorts if I knew more about turn of the century soviet history. If you’re interested in watching them yourself you could probably find them on YouTube and can for sure find them on the Viy blu-ray.

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