The Vourdalak review: A mesmerizing gothic folktale

The Vourdalak - Oscilloscope Laboratories
The Vourdalak - Oscilloscope Laboratories /

Before Bram Stoker's Dracula, published in 1897, there was The Family of the Vourdalak, an 1839 French novel by Russian author Aleksey Tolstoy. The Vourdalak is a mesmerizing adaptation and exciting entry into the overplayed vampire subgenre. The period film contains an engrossing atmosphere, solid performances, and an unsettling puppet as the big bad.

Directed by Adrien Beau and shot on 16 mm, the film stars Kacey Mottet Klein as Marquis d'Urfé, a diplomat of the King of France who gets lost in the forest and finds refuge with a weird family, while Turks ravage and pillage the countryside. The film's tone is apparent immediately with shots of creeping fog and rows of crocked crosses/tombstones in the forest. This very much feels like a Hammer film in all the best ways in terms of tone and mood.

It's apparent that whatever Marquis is about to encounter isn't good. He can't leave, though, because he lost his horse and his luggage, so he's reliant on the family. He also swoons over the rather lovely and mysterious Sdenka (Ariane Labed). The rest of the family includes the vagabond Piotr (Vassili Schneider), Jegor (Grégoire Colin), Jegor's wife Anja (Claire Duburcq), and Anja and Jegor's son Vlad (Gabriel Pavie). Collectively, they make for a very strange and unusual family unit, to put it lightly. Each member is distinct in terms of his or her eccentricity.

The Vourdalak - Oscilloscope Laboratories /

The bloodsucking patriarch, Grocha, is a life-sized puppet voiced by Beau who shambles across the screen and has large teeth that constantly chatter. While Klein suffices as a good leading man, don't be fooled. It's the spinetingling puppet that steals the show and even has some of the feature's best one-liners. The fact a puppet is the bloodsucker makes this film stand out from the oceans of other vampire films. There's simply nothing attractive about this creature. It's manipulative, vicious, and feeds upon its family. This also contrasts with other vampire lure because the monster preys upon its loved ones, knowing they won't leave due to a profound sense of loyalty.

While the feature takes its time to really get going, there are a few gory scenes that will satisfy horror hounds. More often than not, though, this is an absorbing movie heavy on atmosphere. Keep in mind this is an adaptation of a 19th Century gothic novel, after all. The aesthetics frequently reinforce the era and tone, from the costume designs to the spooky shots of the forest. There's one particular scene between Vlad and Gorcha that's downright hair-raising.

The Vourdalak is a fascinating adaptation of a gothic novel that's too often overshadowed by the likes of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's Dracula. Through the simple set design of an eerie forest and an old house, Beau enlivens Tolstoy's novel for the big screen and uses a frightening puppet to do so. This is a rich, poetic film that feels fresh in its execution. The film's also a visual feast with a few nightmarish images and plenty of hypnotic sequences.

The Vourdalak opens exclusively in cinemas on June 28th from Oscilloscope Laboratories.

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