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Jason Widgington [Celluloid 05.21.15] horror fantasy adventure

When a film project languishes for close to ten years in development limbo, chances of it being any good - let alone having any financial success - are usually quite slim. The end result is often a muddled mess of plot adjustments and re-shoots, a once-promising concept somehow watered down into a ball of confusion. Forbidden Empire, from Russian director Oleg Stepchenko and adapted from an 1835 novella by Nikolai Gogol, opened in Eastern Europe (as Viy 3D) in early 2014 and quickly made back enough to turn a tidy profit. But is it actually any good? Well, that depends on the viewer’s expectations.

The original intention was to make a modern, effects-heavy horror remake of 1967’s more literal adaptation of Gogol’s Viy. But, in a probable effort to garner more international interest and distribution, it was decided that it should be more of a dark fantasy about an English cartographer named Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng) who sets out to map previously uncharted territories of Transylvania and the Carpathians only to literally stumble upon a hidden Cossack village close to the one-year anniversary of the events depicted in the novella.

A couple of flashback sequences attempt to explain the events of the previous year, but with the constant back-and-forth between that, the present-day village, and Green’s love interest receiving his letters sent by carrier pigeon while her father (Tywin Lannister himself, Charles Dance) tries to convince her that he’s no good for her, it can all get confusing rather quickly.

Everything sort of ties up nicely in the final minutes if you pay close enough attention, and there are some interesting themes to mull over (science vs. religion, fear of the unknown, and early 18th century Eastern European views of women being just a few), but you don't throw on movies like Forbidden Empire to provok deep thought now do you? No, you want some action and adventure, some great visual effects and some thrills.

There are a couple of horrifying sequences combining practical make-up effects and CGI that alone make up for any lack of plot coherence. And while the overly emotive dubbed voices of the Cossack men combined with their almost identical haircuts renders most of them interchangeable, it does make for some good laughs.

Flemyng turns in a fine performance, chewing the scenery and hamming it up as Green, which somehow fits this kind of film perfectly.

When you add the spectacular visual effects, the dark humor, and the suitably campy acting together with a thrilling score by regular Stepchenko collaborator Anton Garcia, what you get is a fantastical romp that I can only describe as what might have resulted had Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton co-directed one of the darker Harry Potter films but had forgotten to focus on cohesive storytelling at times. Sure, Forbidden Empire may be mostly style over substance, but damn if it isn’t a whole lot of fun! Plus, any movie with Uwe Boll’s name in the credits (he is listed as a co-executive producer here) is okay by this writer!

eOne is releasing Forbidden Empire on VOD on May 22nd, 2015.

Recommended Release: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

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