Forbidden Empire (Movie Review)

Forbidden Empire (Movie Review)
3 10

PLOT: In the early 18th century, an English cartographer (Jason Flemyng) winds lost in the Ukraine, where he stumbles upon a village bordered by an impenetrable woods ruled by an ancient evil.

REVIEW: The story behind FORBIDDEN EMPIRE is actually a lot more interesting than the film itself. Originally titled VIY, or rather VIY 3D, this is actually a Russian mega-opus that’s been in production since 2007. Boasting a $26 million budget, this is a loose adaptation of the Nikolai Gogol short-story, ‘Viy’ which in, in 1967, was turned into the first Soviet era horror film. This mega-production seems more influenced by Hollywood blockbusters like VAN HELSING (appropriate if you consider this has been in production for almost a decade). According to Wikipedia, the production stated and stopped several times before – a few years ago – the decision was made to pretty much scrap everything and start over by shooting the film in native 3D.


This Americanized version apparently runs at least a half hour shorter than the original Russian release, which apparently was enough of a blockbuster that a sequel is already in production. While I have no idea what the international version is like, this abbreviated North American version is a total mess from beginning to end. For one thing, given the VOD release it’s not in 3D, although you can tell that was a big part of the original’s appeal even if the filmmakers didn’t use it in a very sophisticated way. As such there are tons of bad effects thrown at the screen like we used to see in early 3D blockbusters like JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH 3D. This wouldn’t be a deal-breaker if the rest of the film weren’t such a mess.

Given the relatively large budget, you’d expect far better vfx, but the ones in FORBIDDEN EMPIRE wouldn’t pass muster in a release from The Asylum. They look like terrible cut-scenes from nineties era CD-ROM games. The one thing that FORBIDDEN EMPIRE really has going for it is some far-out Terry Gilliam-style production design and one admittedly fun scene where Flemyng’s cartographer hero has a horrifying meal with some villagers, who all start turning into hideous creatures. Even if the CGI is cartoony there’s enough imagination in this scene that it works.

Sadly, the rest of the film doesn’t even come close to measuring up to this one admittedly good bit. Flemyng’s hero is kind of a poor man’s Indiana Jones, and a clumsy framing device featuring Charles Dance as his finance’s disapproving father feels tacked on for international appeal. One thing that’s especially odd is the dubbing. Like the Euro-genre films of the sixties, seventies and eighties, the cast all seem to be speaking their native tongue, meaning nobody quite seems synched up with the dialogue. Even Flemyng, who I presume was speaking English has scenes where the dialogue does not match his lips and in an era where audiences are either too sophisticated or cynical to accept bad dubbing, it makes the movie all but impossible to take seriously.

The story isn’t especially good either, with Flemyng, for all his likability, sidelined for too much of the running time, with long flashbacks devoted to a faithful recreation of Gogol’s story, and very little character development for Flemyng’s roguish hero. The action scenes are all pretty tepid, with a really poor carriage chase early on featuring awful green-screen and cartoonish wolf-like creatures. It’s all very schlocky.

FORBIDDEN EMPIRE is the kind of film that may have had broad appeal in its home territory, but overseas it doesn’t really work for anyone. It’s too tame to be taken as a horror movie (the gore is all PG-13 level) and not exciting or enthralling enough to be taken as straight-up fantasy-adventure. This one’s an easy pass although you have to give director Oleg Stepchenko credit for finally finishing the movie despite all the production difficulties. While I had no use for the film itself, I bet the behind-the-scenes drama would make for an amazing documentary.

Extra Tidbit: FORBIDDEN EMPIRE hits VOD May 22nd.



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