The roots of many of our most beloved fantasy tales are far darker than their Disney counterparts, but the fantasy/horror subgenre is one of the least explored. Director Oleg Stepchenko's film FORBIDDEN EMPIRE first began production in 2005, but problems with finances and re-shoots forced the film's completion to be in 2012. Three years later, and the film is finally becoming available for the world to watch through VOD platforms. Loosely (let me emphasize, LOOSELY) based on Nikolai Gogol's classic story Viy, the film follows British cartographer Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng of STONEHEARST ASYLUM and BRUISER). During his scientific voyage to map out Europe and Asia, he comes across a hidden Ukranian village undergoing mysterious problems. After a peculiar death in the village, things start turning supernatural and the entire village fears it may be cursed. Strange creatures, witches, and a seven-horned beast all begin to plague the people of this village and our cartographer finds himself trapped in the middle. FORBIDDEN EMPIRE is a horror/fantasy/comedy with stunning artistic direction but not much else to write home about.
A large majority of the film is dubbed over Russian, which amplifies the strength in Jason Flemyng's performance. The dubbing isn't awful, but this film would have been much better suited for subtitles. Tackling an epic is no easy feat, but Stepchenko clearly had a vision with this film and did everything in his power to ensure he could bring it to life. Unfortunately, it becomes obvious throughout the film when Stepchenko's vision was compromised by potential outside forces. There is a dinner sequence in the beginning that has the potential to be remarkably fun, and is filled with downright excellent creature designs...but the scene just doesn't hit the way it should. Some of the CGI mixing is less than to be desired, but the concepts for these creatures are absolutely fantastic. Most of the creatures are computer generated, but the practical effects littered throughout help ground the scene, allowing some of the comedy to shine through. The film may not be anywhere close to being a faithful adaption of Viy, as the liberties taken seem like a haphazard attempt to make it more accessible to a modern audience.
The pacing of this film is all over the place. After sprinting out of the gate with the dinner sequence, the film then stutter steps throughout a majority of the film, leading up to a quick climax before tripping at the finish line. The "flow" of the film feels less like a river and more like a pool filled with screaming toddlers. For those unfamiliar with the short story source material, a lot of the exposition was omitted. For a Russian audience, this isn't an issue, but if you're not confident in your Russian literature (or the film's source material), a lot of the film is going to be difficult to follow. The film had the potential to be a total blast, but the inconsistencies in CGI and storytelling allow for a frustrating film experience. However, if you want a VAN HELSING meets ONCE UPON A TIME style horror/fantasy/comedy, this one might be right up your alley.
FORBIDDEN EMPIRE will hit VOD on May 22nd, 2015.