Break out the vodka (pronounced wad-ka) and start boiling the potatoes, because Russian director Oleg Stepchenko has a dark Russian fairytale he’d like to tell you. Loaded with witches, Slavic folklore, and mystical enchantments, Forbidden Empire provides a cultural spin on what would otherwise be a Brothers Grimm tale. Stepchenko keeps his influences in-country, using Nikolai Gogol’s story Viy as a backstory for larger, more sinister(ish) adventures, but there’s an (ish) added because Forbidden Empire feels like two separate films the entire time. It’s like Stepchenko can’t decide which audience he’d rather please more, as the film erratically jumps from childish bouts of jubilant frolicking to sudden bursts of ghoulish debauchery. Ugh, what a haunting tease.
Jason Flemyng stars in Stepchenko’s fable as an ambitious cartographer (Jonathan Green) who sets out to create detailed maps that show the true borders of countries. During his long and arduous journey, he stumbles upon a forgotten Ukranian land that’s filled with villagers who fearfully believe in witchcraft. High atop the foggy settlement’s highest peak sits a cursed church that holds the body of Pannochka (Olga Zaytseva), and this is where the source of all evil is thought to be contained. But with the arrival of Green, Pannochka’s father finally sees an opportunity to honor his daughter with a proper burial. Green is a scientist, he doesn’t believe in the unknown, but after being surrounded by so much superstition, he just might have a change of heart.
There’s a fantasy epic hidden somewhere amidst Forbidden Empire‘s morbid creatures and impish charm, but Stepchenko struggles to expand upon Green’s story despite showcasing an astute visual eye. There are wondrous bouts of enchanted lore that burst from the screen, be it Pannochka’s twisted ode to Raimi’s infamous Evil Dead tree scene, or Green’s mystical encounter with Viy himself, but coherency takes a backseat to these pleasing spectacles. Forbidden Empire is very reminiscent of most modern-day fairytale aesthetics, immediately calling Into The Woods to mind, and there’s certainly no skimping on fantastical elements that transport us to imaginative lands built on crazed beliefs, undead spellcasters, and a multi-eyed beast who ensures certain death. But at what cost? Productions are only as strong as the tale they’re telling, and Forbidden Empire is one of the more muddled beauties in recent memory.
There’s a vague yin and yang effect at play throughout Forbidden Empire, as Stepchenko attempts to balance lighthearted goofiness with dark conjurings from the bowels of Hell. In no way is this film to be considered “horror,” not in the least, but two glaring moments tease a more vile watch than Green’s joke-laced mapmaking quest, and they spark a hunger for more terror.
When Stepchenko peddles scenes ripped from a child’s bedtime story, there’s a mundane notion of been-there-done-that filmmaking. The soundtrack dances about with woodwind whimsy and the townspeople over-accentuate terrible jokes, but then Stepchenko busts out these nightmarish creatures that act as a horrific energy boost. Headless goons, tiny winged bastards, legless torsos walking on cloven hooves – these are the moments where Stepchenko sells Forbidden Empire as a fantasy worth diving into. It’s just a shame that he spends more time on jokes about gigantic wigs and vodka-swigging doofuses.
The teetering balance between a dark that isn’t dark enough and a light that’s too bright translates into confused performances by most actors, and a horridly overdubbed soundtrack that accentuates every tonal trip-up. Jason Flemyng is the only actor you’ll recognize in the sea of Russian-bred performers, and he does a better job downplaying his character’s silly personality, but other townsfolk bumble about with an exuberance that’s more fitting of a child’s cartoon than a rip-roaring journey into the unknown. Flemyng’s character is full of intrigue, from Green’s elaborate carriage/traveling laboratory to the narrative letters he sends back home to a waiting wife, but he essentially finds himself surrounded by common jesters with each new encounter. Even the meanest thugs come off as harmless pests. If danger is what you seek, there are many other paths you should be following.
For such a lavish fantasy, Forbidden Empire blandly just exists. That’s the overarching problem. There’s an obvious ambition that drives Stepchenko, but he struggles to remain clearly focused on the film he wants to make. The tale of Viy sounds much scarier than Jonathan Green’s scientific detour – because apparently cartographers were the badasses of the 1700s. In any case, Forbidden Empire is a bit like a werewolf, where its beastly side only comes out briefly during a full moon. But when it does, damn do those fangs flash. Unfortunately, this scenario happens far too little, and we’re left watching an unsure film that fights a losing battle to be truly epic.
Forbidden Empire strives so hard to be a fantastical epic, but muddied storytelling can't be saved by the horrors of Viy.