Oleg Stepchenko's Forbidden Empire, which lands on VOD tomorrow, is based on the Russian horror short story "Viy" by Nikolai Gogol, and on the Russian 1967 film of the same name. The production of the film took place over a period spanning several years, filmed largely in Russia and the Czech Republic, and the finished product feels like it: a little uneven, with footage from one scene not quite matching the next. But Forbidden Empire opens with a wonderful energy right off the bat, and maintains stamina over the next near two hours, with a boisterous drive barreling us from one scene to the next.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels' Jason Flemyng is Jonathan Green (or Dzhonatan Grin), an 18th century British cartographer who leaves his lover and her stern, aristocratic father, played by Game of Thrones' Charles Dance, to set out on a map-making adventure in some of the most remote parts of Eastern Europe. His journey takes him deep within the Ukrainian forest, where he encounters a cursed village peopled by a deeply superstitious citizenry. As Green faces witches, hellbeasts, demons and animated corpses, the audience begins to question what is reality and what is the product of the villagers' fevered paranoia.
The movie has a wholly original tone: costume drama meets Grimm meets kitchen sink horror. By necessity of the film's low budget and epic scale, some pretty shoddy CGI is employed (as well as some iffy dubbing), but it's always colorfully and thoughtfully applied. The art direction of the movie is more ambitious than it is perfectly executed, but it's hard not to admire the scope of this thing. This movie has some of the most insane scenes in recent memory, these prodigious, fantastical creature battles that always, always push past the limit of what can reasonably be expected into the realm of the utterly, brain-bendingly absurd.
To be honest, Forbidden Empire is a little bit of a mess: how can it not be with a production story as long as this one? The whole thing feels a little half-baked (actually, over-baked), entirely weird, not quite coherent. It's a bit of a shaggy dog that could benefit from quite a lot of trimming. But it's the sort of mess more movies should make of themselves; nothing here is the result of apathy or cash-grabbing. It's wild and colorful and exciting and funny; it's neck-deep in witches and monsters and magic and devilry. It's chaos, but I want more chaos from my movies. Forbidden Empire is a labor of love, and if it feels a little labored, well, it also feels loved.