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Review: Home Is Where The Surreal Vampire Puppet Horror Is In 'The Vourdalak'

By Jason Adams | Film | July 3, 2024 |

By Jason Adams | Film | July 3, 2024 |


You’re not likely to stumble upon another movie that smashes together the same bizarre list of ingredients quite like the weird and wild and wonderful The Vourdalak does. Literature, horror, puppetry, wigs—the triumphantly strange first feature-length film from fashion “scenographer” Adrien Beau, this movie sets quite the scene indeed. An adaptation of one of the original vampire stories, Aleksei K. Tolstoy’s 1839 novella La Famille du Vourdalak (The Family of the Vourdalak)—which predates Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula by 40 years and was previously adapted into one third of Mario Bava’s classic 1963 anthology film Black Sabbath with Boris Karloff—this movie borrows from many but feels singular… not to mention unsettling as heck.

“The forest seethes with danger,” a weary traveler is warned as he’s turned away from the door of a small house in the woods one dark and naturally stormy night. The traveler, weary though he may be, still cuts quite the posh figure—he is the Marquis Jacques Antoine Saturnin d’Urfé (Kacey Mottet Klein), a fancy-man French emissary traveling for the King, all resplendent in his powdered pre-Revolution poofery. Lost in the vaguely Slavic mountains where the Poles are fighting the Turks and vice versa, the Marquis is at the moment searching for some shelter befitting a man of his stature—directed to the middle-class Gorcha house down the road, the Marquis acquiesces, albeit pissily.

The first member of the Gorcha family that the Marquis encounters is eldest daughter Sdenka (played by familiar Yorgos Lanthimos actress and wife Ariane Labed), who he spies dancing about in the woods while done up like a Romani silent film star. Indeed, although the film is awash in desaturated browns and foggy blues, it often feels like a silent black-and-white film come to life—or perhaps more of a cursed object teleported to us from another time, the grain of the dirt it was buried beneath permanently scorched into its filmstock. (Beau shot the film on Super 16mm film, which accounts for its lush and bewildering look.) The Marquis is immediately entranced by Sdenka, but too intimidated by and frightened of her confident womanly movement to approach. She is, he will say in confidence later, nothing like “the catty coquettes at court.”

Making his way to the Gorcha homestead from there The Marquis meets the rest of the family one by one—there’s Sdenka’s beautiful teen brother Piotr (Vassili Schneider), who looks like he wandered right out of a Caravaggio painting, and whom the Marquis mistakes for a woman at first in another of what will be many stabs at gender and sexual unconformity by the film. The Marquis is after all a man buried beneath powdered make-up, a drawn-on mole, and a wig—and yet it’s Piotr’s golden earrings and long skirt that confuse him?

Next there is the eldest brother Jegor (Grégoire Colin, best known as the most gorgeous of all the gorgeous dancing soldiers in Claire Denis’ Beau Travail), Jegor’s constantly harried wife Anja (a hilarious and then devastating Claire Duburcq), and their little boy Vlad (Gabriel Pavie), whose name is surely no mistake. Jegor welcomes the Marquis into their home and he kindly has Anja feed him some of the raw chicken-head broth she’s in the process of enthusiastically smashing up, her hands and face spalttered with gore in a good sight-gag and an even better sign of things to come. But Jegor says he must first check with the elderly family patriarch, Gorcha himself, before he can permit the Marquis to stay on.

This is when Jegor, who has been off fighting Turks and has only just arrived home, learns that sickly old Gorcha has taken off into the woods to fight some Turks himself, despite everyone’s protestations. Being the head of the household, the words of women and “a sissy” meant less than nothing to him, after all—it is Gorcha’s manly duty to go off to slaughter him some Turks! But he did leave a word of warning to those he was leaving behind—if, by the sixth hour of the sixth day he has not returned home, then they should consider him dead. And if he arrives later than the sixth hour of the sixth day he will no longer be himself but a “Vourdalak” (basically a vampire), and they should not allow him entry.

Anyway whaddya know, Jegor and the Marquis both happened to arrive at the Gorcha house on the sixth day itself. So what is there to do but wait? And as the distant church bells toll the six o-clock hour, that’s when Jegor spots him—just a pile of rags and bones at the edge of the yard. But a pile of rags and bones that moves? And speaks?

Up top I mentioned puppetry, and this is where that grand puppetry promise bears its fruit. Because it turns out that one of director and “scenographer” Adrien Beau’s great skills is puppetry, and Gorcha is uncanniness itself given terrifying form. Like a life-size Día de Muertos skeleton given herky-jerky teeth-chattering bone-rattling life, it is immediately apparent to everyone that this horrible thing is not their human father returned. Or it should be apparent anyway! But Gorcha says that’s who he is, and Jegor, brainwashed to eldest son compliance, stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the difference. If he says he’s their father, then he is dammit. And given the time and place where our fateful story’s unfolding, the patriarchal line is not to be bent.

They’re all caught in a monstrous Catch-22—ignore what their eyes are telling them, and even ignore the original words of their father himself, because a monster has slipped inside his former shell (and not even well at that) and is in front of them telling them otherwise. In a world where we cannot question the men in power we’re just forced to follow them unhappily, dancing ourselves right into the pits of hell. Gorcha’s first command is to kill the family pet, and it’s all downhill from there.

The presence of the Marquis inside this power-struggle does complicate matters—he might be a “powdered courtier” (which Gorcha calls him as the puppet hilariously limp-wrists), and one from another country altogether, but class is a whole different beast. The family, even at this their darkest moment, must acknowledge that. And so Sdenka takes her refuge in the Marquis’ silly stories of the women at court, and everyone is forced to further play-act in the presence of such regal company. A truly queer theater for their guest, while Gorcha begins infecting their dreams and sneaking into their beds at dark, one by nightmarish one…

Images of true horror abound in The Vourdalak—a little boy being chomped on, a Night of the Living Dead reenactment of a parent sucked into their worst horror, and the puppet among them all, bobbing along in its strange and unnatural inhuman trance. It is said that a Vourdalak “does not attack at random”—that it delights the most in feeding on those closest to its heart. “Love is a curse in these parts,” they whisper, they shudder, as their familial obligations gobble them up tip to toe. The sound of a wet smacking echoes through the trees—the distance between sweet kisses and the chewing of flesh rendered infinitesimal. The very structures we’ve built up to shield us from the terrible outside smother us dead in The Vourdalak—spit your prayers into the dirt, and dig your corpse a bed.