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Viy: Forbidden Empire (2014), a mediocre Russian dark fantasy boasting cool monsters.

June 27, 2016

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MY CALL: This movie looks too cool to skip, but you should keep your expectations quite low despite the trailer quality. Lots of high fantasy presented in garbled CGI quality and fragmented storytelling. MOVIES LIKE Viy: Forbidden Empire: Perhaps Viy (1967), on which several scenes in this movie were based. This film reminded me of the dark fantasy found in The Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001), The Brothers Grimm (2005), Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) or the Lord of the Rings trilogy (1978, 2001-2003) or The Hobbit trilogy (1977, 2012-2014). For older dark fantasy try Legend (1985), Willow (1988), Labyrinth (1986), The Dark Crystal (1982), Wizards (1977), The Last Unicorn (1982), The Wiz (1978) or Return to Oz (1985).

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There’s something odd about the tone set by this Russian fantasy film set in 1701 Europe. From its very start it frantically darts from one story idea to another, this new character to the next, this scene to that, festooned with CGI effects and transitions that smack more of a videogame than a movie. We are bombarded by this collage of scenery and characters, complete with romantic prophecy, mortal love, an inspired inventor and explorer, some sort of horned bog creature and all manner of magic in a matter of minutes. This may strike you as something that sounds cool–but the film is not nearly as cool as the trailer.

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The budget is clearly not high as indicated by the non-CGI set components, and CGI is routinely used to complement the scenery. It resembled the effects of the “clip scenes” from some horror/fantasy videogame that had amazing effects a decade ago but seems to fall short in quality today. This produces mixed feelings from this reviewer. Whereas the CGI augments the sense of high fantasy, its quality leaves me fearful that this crutch may be employed to mask other shortcomings. One such shortcoming was the atrocious English dubbing, which was more irresponsibly haphazard than that found in 1970s Kung Fu Theater. Just terrible.

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Our bold explorer Dzhonatan Grin (Jason Flemyng; Hanna, X-Men: First Class) sets out to make the most accurate maps the world has ever seen using his own cartography invention. But like Gulliver or Baron von Munchausen, he has his share of misadventure. He encounters witches, foolish drunk monks, superstitious villagers and zombie wolves…but that’s the “normal” stuff. After he is commissioned to map the area surrounding a lord arrested to his land for fear of some curse, the locals take a particularly strong interest in Dzhonatan (dubbed Jonathan).

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While the effects quality was mediocre, the scene featuring the girl’s animated, almost hag-like possessed corpse and the animated prehensile roots was pretty cool. It made for a long action sequence. Likewise, the mass transformation scene at the dinner table was the coolest scene of the film.

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As if magically fueled by the darkest of witchcraft, the men transform into demonic creatures and their entrée pirogues hatch stillborn monstrous yet diminutive fetuses into a swarm of tiny winged imps. The demons are pretty awesome, but the scene itself comes out of nowhere and would benefit from a larger budget. Enjoyable nonetheless! I particularly enjoyed seeing the perversions of their now vestigial, modified or recently detached body parts.

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Then there’s the creature with the crazy eyelids and the compound eyes. As if born from the mind of Guillermo del Toro, the monsters were clearly the highlight of this film.

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Unfortunately, the scenes between the special effects pelted us with fragmented story components and, again, the destitute dubbing only made things worse since there was a lot of story to tell. Not even the occasional scene with Charles Dance (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) could save this film.

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An Amazon reviewer (brad1110c, to give credit) called this a “hot mess of almost…OR an interesting jumble of potential.” That’s probably a perfect assessment of these neat ideas packed into a woeful film. The neat steam punk story, fantasy theme and Transylvania setting would benefit from a Netflix series treatment, in my opinion. If you’ve seen (and probably fallen in love with) the trailer, I probably cannot dissuade you from seeing this or waiting until it can be viewed for free. Just be warned that expectations should be set low. VERY LOW.

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