26th Jun2024

‘The Vourdalak’ Review

by Jim Morazzini

Stars: Kacey Mottet Klein, Ariane Labed, Vassili Scheider, Grégoire Colin, Claire Duburcq, Gabriel Pavie | Written by Adrien Beau, Hadrien Bouvier | Directed by Adrien Beau

The Vourdalak, or if you prefer, Le Vourdalak, is the most recent adaptation of Alexei Tolstoy’s novella The Family of the Vourdalak. Written in 1839 and first published in 1850, it has already been filmed several times, most famously as the final segment of Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath, the Italians returned to the story in 1972 with Giogio Ferroni’s The Night of the Devils and most recently as A Taste of Blood by Argentinian director Santiago Fernández Calvete.

This time it’s French filmmakers, director Adrien Beau (Les Condiments Irréguliers, La Petite Sirène) and co-writer Hadrien Bouvier who are adapting it. They begin the film with Marquis Jacques Antoine Saturnin d’Urfe (Kacey Mottet Klein; The Suicide Shop, Death and the Winemaker) looking for shelter after an attack that wiped out his entire entourage. The owner of the first house he stops at refuses to help, but does direct him towards the Gorcha residence further up the road.

On his way there he sees Sdenka (Ariane Labed; Assassin’s Creed, The Forbidden Room), and becomes smitten. He follows her and, in a moment worthy of Benny Hill at his finest, mistakes her cross-dressing brother Piotr (Vassili Scheider; The Count of Monte-Cristo, Dark Inclusion) for her. It works out for the best, as they, along with the eldest son Jegor (Grégoire Colin; In the Arms of My Enemy, Full Contact), his wife Anja (Claire Duburcq; She Is Conann, After Blue), and their son Vlad (Gabriel Pavie; The Family) are who he’s looking for.

There is one other, the family’s patriarch, who has gone out after the invading Turks. He left instructions that, if he returns after six days, not to let him in under any circumstances. Of course he does return, but after the deadline. And, equally predictably, they let him in anyway even though it should be obvious to all that what he feared has come to pass, and he has become the vourdalak he warned them of.

And it should be obvious because to emphasize the character’s inhuman nature, The Vourdalak’s title character is played not by an actor but by a life-size marionette created by Franck Limon-Duparcmeur (Transporter 3, Open Season) and voiced by the film’s director. It’s a creepy, skeletal thing, almost as pale as the Marquis’ powdered face. The rouge circles on the nobleman’s cheeks however make him look more like a clown, which frequently tends to match his actions.

Shot on Super 16mm film by David Chizallet (Mustang, Long Day’s Journey Into Night) The Vourdalak looks like a film from the seventies with real grain rather than the digital imitation so many “retro” films use. Combined with set design by Thibault Pinto (All the Gods in the Sky, Knife + Heart) which brings out the menace in the family’s dark, troubled house. It does feel like one of those odd Eurohorrors that popped up in art theatres or on late-night television. The film’s odd story, with its eccentric characters and ghoulish final act, capped with an image as beautiful as it is chilling, just reinforces that feeling.

As with those films, don’t expect a lot in the way of jump scares. The Vourdalak is based on a centuries-old gothic novella and relies much more on atmosphere and ghoulish imagery to chill the blood of its viewers. And watching the undead patriarch manipulate and prey on his family is chilling, disturbing and occasionally darkly funny, rather than simply scary. Several excellent performances, and puppeteering, play into that nicely. Most notable are Klein’s scared of his own shadow nobleman who tries to act heroic and Labed as the reason why he tries to be the hero.

If you like slow-burning horror films, and/or grew up with European horror films on TV, The Vourdalak should appeal to you. It’s definitely something different from most of the genre films released lately.

***½  3.5/5

Oscilloscope Laboratories will release The Vourdalak to US theatres on June 28th. It will be available on Blu-ray as well as VOD and Digital Platforms at a later, yet to be announced, date.
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Review originally posted on Voices From the Balcony
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