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Holy Place, A
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by Jay Seaver

"'Viy' for visitation."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2010 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL: I've been coming to Fantasia for five or six years now, and I believe that this is the third time that some take on Nikolai Gogol's "Viy" has played. This one is from 1990, part of the "Subversive Serbia" program, but feels like it comes from an earlier era, a creepy period piece dripping with atmosphere.

Thomas (Dragan Jovanovic) is a theology student, though not a particularly observant one. On the way back from a town fair, he sees a carriage that neither of his two companions do. Things get stranger when the old woman who lets him sleep in his barn enters and tries to force herself upon him - which becomes a great deal more appealing when she seems to transform into the beautiful girl in the carriage. Upon returning to the seminary, the abbot tells him he has an assignment: Landlord Zupanski (Aleksandar Bercek) is insisting that Thomas, specifically, come to his estate to pray for his daughter's health, per her wishes. When Thomas arrives, though, Katarina (Branka Pujic) has already passed... And guess where Thomas has seen that face before!

Though A Holy Place is an old-school horror story that takes place in a more repressed time, writer/director Djordje Kadijevic is not shy about drawing the direct line between sex and the occult goings-on that surround Thomas and Katarina. It's a powerful force here, one that literally warps reality and drives men mad, and Kadijevic does a fine job of presenting the dichotomy of the sex drive as being something that is both natural and something that must be mastered lest it destroy everything.

It's not spelled out, of course, because this is the sort of ghost story where nothing is. In this period and rustic setting, the supernatural is something that the characters either have an instinctive understanding of or which leaves them utterly at sea. Thomas instinctively knows to draw a protective circle around himself when strange things start happening, but there are no ready remedies. The movie does a nice job of making all the strangeness feel connected without offering reassuring cause and effect. Kadijevic makes things more and more eerie, often without giving us easy jump moments to release the tension.

That can be a bit of a weakness sometimes; as much as it's nice to see a film that doesn't resort to easy shocks, A Holy Place also lacks the moment that really messes the audience up. It's got a couple that come close, but at least one comes in a flashback that does not exactly announce itself clearly; as much as a film like this should be a bit discombobulating, it perhaps shouldn't cause confusion in that way.

As much as Kadijevic contributes to the film, it also absolutely requires a fine performance by Dragan Jovanovic. It isn't quite a one-man show, but Jovanovic is in nearly every scene and does a nice job of shifting his emphasis from being a callow youth to genuine unease and, perhaps, resignation; he does a fine job of placing the audience in Thomas's place. Branka Pujic's role is all but silent for most of the film; instead, she commands the screen with intimidating beauty and dominating body language. Special notice should also be made of Predrag Miletic, who plays the dog trainer already mad when Thomas arrives, and Maja Sabljic as a housemaid who may have answers for Thomas.

It's not perfect, but it certainly packs a solid, cumulative group of creepy moments together. Though relatively modern, it feels like a ghost story from the early days of Universal or Hammer, all creepy period atmosphere and relatively little blood, though eerie enough for that.

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originally posted: 08/03/10 12:47:08
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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