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“FORBIDDEN EMPIRE” (Film Review)

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Fantasy and myth are powerful things. Not only in how they can inspire the imagination, but in how they can cloud reason and judgment, and cause horrible events to occur in a cloud of superstition.  This wary view of mythology is the ironic driving force behind FORBIDDEN EMPIRE, a dark fantasy adventure film that delivers a new take on the Ukrainian folk story “Viy” from Russian author Nikolai Gogol.

Through an exposition-heavy but tightly-edited opening sequence, we are introduced to our traveling protagonist, ambitious cartographer Jonathan Green, played with charm and respectability by Jason Flemyng. Green intends to go out and map all of the currently uncharted parts of the world, starting with the deep forests of Eastern Europe. Leaving his lover and her disapproving father (GAME OF THRONES’ Charles Dance) in London, he sets out in his impressive steampunk stagecoach.

At first, the film almost feels as though it’s going to be a swashbuckling, globe-trotting adventure, but once Green finds himself in a small Ukrainian village supposedly haunted by witches and demons, things get dark, quick. In terms of cinematography, this means that the film’s color palette slims down almost exclusively to grey mixed with dull blues and greens. As for the story itself, Green is plunged into the town’s hysteria dealing with a seven horned creature that has been haunting them, only exacerbated by the village priest, whose ramblings about faith seem less righteous and more megalomaniacal as the film progresses.

Like the 1967 film VIY, of which the film is a remake, the plot also involves the mysterious events that happened when a young priest was forced to pray for three nights next to the corpse of the village master’s daughter. The supernatural goings on in the church that night are shown twice, with wildly different yet distinctly supernatural events occurring, and help fuel the fear and paranoia among the villagers, who already harbor such enlightened beliefs as “all women are witches.” Green’s decision to use the now condemned church as the centerpoint for his map of the town puts the two plots on a collision course, and by the film’s act, the viewer is desperate to separate the lines between fantasy and reality as the lives of innocents hang in the balance.
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The film makes heavy use of CGI to bring its mythical beasts to life, and though that might be a slight disappointment for those loyal to practical FX, the digital demons end up being genuinely disturbing here. One particularly startling sequence finds Green slowly watching the men he’s having dinner with transform into mutilated, animal-hybrid versions of themselves that attack him. It’s a terrifying sequence, but we’re never meant to be sure if it actually happened or not.

Being a Russian production, the film features quite a bit of English language dub work for the haggard and perennially soot-covered villagers. Thankfully the voice work here is solid; the accents never venture to the point of being cartoonish, and manage to punctuate many scenes with pitch black humor.

Though the film is nearly two hours long, it runs at a quick pace, to the point where one might actually have slight trouble keeping up with the many characters and their dueling schemes. But when the revelation of what really happened in that condemned church comes in the third act, the movie manages to take a breath and bask in the drama and action of its denouement.

FORBIDDEN EMPIRE’s production was reported to have taken several years to complete, and it certainly shows in the dated look of some digital effects, or the village’s muted colors that seem reminiscent of so many genre films from the 2000’s, but a combination of quality acting and a genuinely arresting story manage to elevate the film and allow it to be seen for what it is, a fantasy film suited for 21st century sensibilities, where even the fantastic and paranormal can be conquered with a combination of ernest virtue and sharp logic.

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FORBIDDEN EMPIRE will be available on VOD this Friday, May 22nd.

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About the author
Christopher La Vigna

Christopher La Vigna is a writer, filmmaker, and the newest batch of blood to be welcomed into the haunted halls of FANGORIA. He’s a graduate of Hunter College*, and can be found lurking around any movie theater or comic shop near his person. You can argue about movies with him on Twitter: @Chris_LaVigna

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