Jonathan Green, a cartographer, sets out across Eastern Europe in the name of science. However, he eventually finds himself trapped in a small isolated village in the Ukraine where the people are crippled by superstitious fear. Even though Jonathan chooses to believe in science, he will begin to question his faith as he discovers that hidden within this village is the embodiment of pure evil.
Both Ronny and I are big fans of the original 1967 film, “Viy” — Ronny even included it on his Top 99 Arthouse list — since it was a great little piece of classic horror that’s rich with atmosphere and features some spectacular creatures. However, only one of us was foolish enough to watch the 2006 remake, “Vedma” — a soulless and tedious movie that may have had updated effects (which were far less impressive in comparison to the original film), but contained nothing else. With this new remake, I couldn’t help but approach it with both caution and curiosity.
During the 18th century, English cartographer, Jonathan Green, heads out across Eastern Europe in order to map out the country and, hopefully, make a few scientific discoveries. Eventually, Jonathan Green finds himself in a tiny isolated village in the Ukraine where the people are paralyzed be a superstitious fear and try to hide from the evils of the world. There he’s told the tale of a young monk who was ordered to read psalms over the body of a beautiful young girl for three nights. The young girl, however, had been possessed by the spirit of a witch who unleashed the devil known as Viy and his horde of demons. According to the legend, the monk did not survive the ordeal and now a curse hangs over the village. Soon Jonathan finds himself a prisoner by the crazed villagers and has to uncover the the truth if he wishes to escape.
After the awful mess that “Vedma” was, I expected “Forbidden Empire” to be nothing more than a bloated cartoon that was trying to take an old story and make it appeal to a new generation. You could argue that that’s true in some aspects, but Oleg Stepchenko tried to put his own spin on it and expand the reach of the story. Personally, I believe he was successful since I don’t consider “Forbidden Empire” to be a remake at all. I would actually call it a spiritual sequel in a sense. Much to the delight or dismay of some viewers.
The story of “Viy” that most of us are familiar with — the tale of a monk who watches over the remains of a young woman who is possessed by a witch — is a mere subplot in “Forbidden Empire”. While the watching the movie, it felt like “Viy” relates to “Forbidden Empire” in a similar way that “Evil Dead” exists in relation to “Evil Dead 2” — in order to tell a new story they had to recreate parts of the old story in the new one. Either intentionally or unintentionally; the story of “Viy” cleverly exists as folklore in the village that the film’s lead character, Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng), finds himself in. Eventually he also becomes swept up in a mystery that’s surrounded by death and superstition but somehow ties Viy (as in the actual spirit), the young woman, and the monk together.
It works effectively in the greater scheme of what “Forbidden Empire” is and trying to accomplish but the first half in which the tale of monks, demons and witches takes place is where the movie has its biggest problems. Because the movie is trying to cram so much information into that first half, the story occasionally becomes convoluted. Essentially you’re being told three stories simultaneously that takes place over the course of a year. With that, the movie’s time line is constantly jumping around without a clear indication of what it is your watching and how it relates to one of the other plots. It wasn’t until the spectacular “hell” sequence around the 50-minute mark that I finally understood that flashbacks were occurring. I can blame myself partially for that since I’m sure I was being slow on the uptake, but it’s also because that first half is so jumbled. “Forbidden Empire” is trying to get through the “Viy” aspect of the story as quickly as it can since it is, more or less, exposition. And it feels erratic because the pacing is so fast in that first half because it is trying to get through that exposition so it can move onto Jonathan Green’s story. Unfortunately the pacing needed to be much slower but an ambitious concept and script meant there was a lot of ground that needed to be covered and not much time to do it.
The good thing is that once “Forbidden Empire” hits that halfway mark, it settles into a groove that’s more conducive to the movie’s tone. However this could also be the point where some of the audience is lost as the movie is now focused on its own characters and telling its story. For me, this was the movie’s strong point because it became its own movie — there’s a definite separation between “Forbidden Empire” and some of its source material. In hindsight that’s actually why “Vedma” failed; it was a misguided effort that wasn’t able to capture what made the original “Viy” so good. “Forbidden Empire” is less interested in recreating what another movie had made, but instead, aimed to create a fun adventurous dark-fantasy and the strange world the movie takes place in.
“Forbidden Empire” walks a fine line though; people are either going to appreciate the fact that it’s a movie that’s trying to be more than mere remake, or they’re going to be disappointed that it becomes more about a mystery than demons. For me, I found myself enjoying “Forbidden Empire” more when I realized it was less about atmospheric horror, and more about a fantasy adventure. The film borrows a lot of elements from the original “Viy” — like flying caskets and hordes of hideous creatures — but thoughtfully uses them to tell a different story and to help creating the world of “Forbidden Empire”.
Oleg Stepchenko’s film isn’t without its flaws as that first half of the movie can be a bit frustrating since it has erratic pacing and the story can be all over the place. It also becomes a bit standard fair as far as dark-fantasy films go since the story tends to follow a path we are familiar with (“Van Hellsing”, “Pan’s Labyrinth”, “Hellboy”, etc.). Even so, “Forbidden Empire” remained fun and enjoyable without becoming tiresome during its 2-hour runtime. The story takes some predictable turns, but for me, I found it to be a movie where the entertainment came from simply letting the plot unfold — I wasn’t trying to beat the movie to the punch, so to speak. There are a few holes, and again, it’s a little predictable, but I don’t necessarily see that as being a bad thing. Particularly when it comes to fantasy-adventure films like “Forbidden Empire”, since it’s more about world building and the characters. And honestly, I could see this continuing on in other installments with the character Jonathan Green.