A HOLY PLACE (Sveto mesto, 1990)

Director: Djordje Kadijevic

Screenplay: Djordje Kadijevic (based on Nikolai Gogol's short story "Viy")

Cast: Dragan Jovanovic, Branka Pujic, Aleksandar Bercek, Mira Banjac

Producers: Zoran Otasevic, Dusan Kalmic

Country: Serbia 1990

Running time: 90 min

In this photo:

DP Aleksandar Petkovic (far left), the director Djordje Kadijevic (next to him)

This is the version of Nikolai Gogol's short story "Viy" that foreign audiences have barely ever seen (and most have probably never heard of it, too). Unlike the rather benign Russian fantasy (VIY 1967), the Serbian version is definitively for adults, both in terms of erotic and horrific content. The story is still about a reluctant theology student forced to spend three nights in a row in a spooky locked church reading the Psalms over the (un)dead girl. All the while supernatural forces are trying to grab him from the Holy Circle drawn on the floor. Gogol's half-humorous story is enriched into a more complex one by the new back-story for the witch-girl and her father. They provide an unparalleled excess of perversity and terror, whose intensity is unique among other, tamer Slavic attempts at producing fear.

In Kadijevic's version, the character of Catherine is an embodiment of a femme fatale. A number of flashbacks reveal the young woman as a true devourer of men and, in a rare example of an explicit lesbian scene within the Serbian cinema, of women too. Catherine's back-story is learned through a gradual process, with three separate stories about her (each more horrible than the previous one), heard on three successive nights. The final "turn of the screw" (completely invented by the screenwriter/director), is reminiscent of the powerful climaxes in Pupi Avati's Italian rural gothics, suggesting the corruption and perversion hidden beneath the respectable appearances.

This "Serbian Gothic" is psychologically motivated. For Kadijevic (the veteran of Serbian cinema), the human condition is quite sufficient as a source of horror, and the eternal struggles of Eros and Thanatos seem to be at its core. A Holy Place is most reminiscent of Mario Bava's gothic films, both in terms of elaborate visuals and a serious, dramatic treatment of the story and characters. Barely noticed at the time of its release, A Holy Place remains a hidden gem of psycho-supernatural horror which the audiences outside of Serbia have yet to discover.

The film is not available on DVD with English subtitles. This Divx with fan-made subs is the only option for those who didn't catch it on the big screen at Fantasia's SUBVERSIVE SERBIA program.

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