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Having a Movie Moment with Jon Longhi: Russian Ghosts & Japanese Monsters

Posted by The Bay Area Crew, February 21, 2020 05:49pm | Post a Comment

By Jon Longhi

Welcome to this month’s Having A Movie Moment With Jon Longhi where I review recent Blu-ray releases.

VIYViy, Severin:
This dark Russian fairy tale could easily make it onto a list of the best horror/ fantasy movies ever made. It's just a simple story beautifully told. In the fifties and sixties, Russia produced some psychedelic and surreal adaptations of fairy tales. Most of these were made for children, but Viy takes this unique aesthetic and applies it to a fable that is decidedly for adults. The movie is an adaptation of a classic novella by Nikolai Gogol and there is a literary feel to the screenplay that keeps the story on a tight narrative track. Director Mario Bava previously adapted this same Gogol novella as Black Sunday and, while it is an excellent movie, Viy is even better.

The film starts when a class of seminary students are sent home for vacation. Three of them lose their way and end up staying at a farmhouse owned by an old woman. During the night the old woman tries to seduce one of the students whose name is Khoma. When he rejects her advances, she puts him under a spell and begins riding him around the countryside like a horse. When they start flying he realizes she's a witch. When they finally land, he beats her to death with a stick. After death she turns into a beautiful young woman and Khoma runs back to his seminary. The next day, his Rector summons him and sends him to the house of a rich man to read prayers for his dying daughter. When he arrives, Khoma is horrified to discover that the daughter is same woman he killed the night before. The rich man tells Khoma if he stands vigil and reads prayers for his daughter for three nights in a row he will be richly rewarded; if he refuses, he faces severe punishment. Khoma basically has no choice but to agree. This is the basic setup of the story and the bulk of the film explores what happens each night as he sits vigil and is assaulted by ever greater supernatural manifestations and attacks. Each night, the underworld ante is upped until the third night becomes one of the most bat shit crazy things ever filmed in horror cinema history. It's literally like an Hieronymus Bosch painting brought to life with extra demons bussed in from one of Salvador Dali's nightmares. I have watched this ending many times and every time I view it I notice some new strange detail. If you ever want to see a cinematic representation of things going totally insane, just watch the end of this movie. It's one of the best and most unique scenes ever filmed. Severin's edition of Viy is a perfect movie release. The remastered picture looks stunning and allows you see all kinds of details in the ending insanity that weren't clear in earlier editions. There is an English dub as well as the subtitled version. The bonus features include interviews and a trailer. There's a nice little feature on the history of Soviet fantasy and sci-fi films called: From The Woods To The Cosmos. You even get a selection of three short silent films. This came out in December of 2019 and was easily one of the best releases of the year.

Ultraseven: The Complete Series, Mill Creek Entertainment:
Ultraseven is the thinking man's Ultraman. The first Ultraman series was more of a kid's show, but with this second series the shows creators, Tsuburaya Productions, returned to the darker and more adult themes they had explored in their first TV series Ultra Q. Whereas the first Ultraman had actually fused his being with a human he had accidentally killed, Ultraseven is just a scientist/astronomer visiting Earth to do research. Since he is not actually inhabiting a human body, he has less skin in the game and this allows him to view human behavior and activity with more distance and separation. In certain episodes, he feels like a total outsider. The scripts have more moral ambiguity to them and at times Ultraseven even has to question whether the aliens or the humans are more in the wrong. These themes add a literary three dimensionality to the scripts that was lacking in the original series. Don't get me wrong though, there are still plenty of monsters, laser beams, and crushed cities; there's just more food for thought along the way. For example, in one episode aliens brainwash earth's children and turn their toy guns into real guns to use them as their unseen invasion force because the parents and armies of Earth won't kill their own children. In another episode, Ultraseven and earth's defense forces destroy an underground civilization they have just discovered. This episode ends on a truly frightening note because they never know if the underground city was part of an invading force or was a hidden terrestrial culture that had been here for thousands or millions of years. The distinction is important as the narrator points out because if they were invaders Ultraseven and the humans are protecting the earth, but if they were terrestrial human natives our heroes are guilty of mass genocide! These are not the kind of story lines that would have appeared in the more kid-friendly first season!

There are still many similarities to the first season though. Ultraseven also takes on a human form even though in his case it is merely a disguise. In his human identity as Dan Moroboshi, he can walk among mankind and study them. During his stay on earth, humanity is under constant attack from an apparently endless stream of alien races. To combat them, the Terrestrial Defense Force establishes the Ultra Garrison, an elite defense group with state of the art weapons that is devoted specifically to threats from outer space. The Ultra Garrison is nearly identical to the Science Patrol in the first Ultraman series and by the end of the first episode, Dan Moroboshi has joined the group. During the series he frequently needs their help to dispose of the monsters he finds himself up against. And the monsters Ultraseven fights are as crazy and surreal as anything that ever came out of the land of the rising sun. In fact, one episode has one of the most wacky Japanese monsters I've ever encountered. All over Japan cars are disappearing. When the mystery is solved the culprit turns out to be a giant alien robot that literally eats automobiles. It's like a walking trash/scrap compactor that's over twenty stories high and one of the most oddball creations to ever spring out of the human imagination. The depth of the story lines mixed with the insanity of the visuals makes Ultraseven one of the most satisfying entrees in the entire Ultraman franchise.

If you are a fan of the show, Mill Creek Entertainment's Blu-ray release is everything you could have hoped for. The set is very reasonably priced and comes in a beautiful package with a booklet that is chock-full of useful information. The episodes themselves look AMAZING! The first Ultraman set looked great, but this new series is just flawless. The restoration is on the same level as the Ultra Q set Mill Creek did, which looks and sounds as good as anything the Criterion Collection ever released. If you are a Japanese monster movie fan, you need all of these Mill Creek sets. They are some of the best classic kaiju releases of all time.

Relevant Tags

Mario Bava (7), Nikolai Gogol (1), Russian Film (3), World Cinema (10), Criterion Collection (11), Ultraman (4), Kaiju (4), Japan (45), Monsters (19), Blu-rays (19), Film (202), Cult Films (25), Cult Film (36), Movie Moment (20), Jon Longhi (34), Ghosts (2), Witches (10), Vampires (11), Hieronymus Bosch (1), Salvador Dali (2), Ultra Q (3)