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The Vourdalak Review

June 28, 2024 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
The Vourdalak Image Credit: Oscilloscope Laboratories
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The Vourdalak Review  

Directed by: Adrien Beau
Written by: Adrien Beau and Hadrien Bouvier

Kacey Mottet Klein – Marquis Jacques Antoine Saturnin d’Urfe
Ariane Labed – Sdenka
Grégoire Colin – Jegor
Vassili Schneider – Piotr
Claire Duburcq – Anja
Gabriel Pavie – Vlad
Adrien Beau – Gorcha (voice)

Image Credit: Oscilloscope Laboratories

Running Time: 90 minutes
Not Rated

It’s a good time to be a vampire on the big screen. 2024 has seen several bloodsuckers lurking at the edge of cinema, with films like Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person and Sunrise being joined by bigger-budget fare like Abigail and the upcoming Nosferatu.

While most of 2024’s undead have taken a modern approach to creatures of the night, The Vourdalak stands out by going in the other direction. Taking its inspiration from the Aleksey Tolstoy novella The Family of the Vourdalak, which preceded Dracula by half a century, Adrien Beau’s gorgeously strange film injects fresh life into the classic tale through strong creative choices that veer between darkly funny and creepily tragic.

The film opens as the Marquis Jacques Antoine Saturnin d’Urfe (Klein) knocks on the door of a man seeking aid. He’s been attacked, his escort killed and his belongings taken. The man sends him further down the road to the home of Gorcha, noting not to stop until he gets there because “The forest seethes with danger.”

When he arrives at the home of Gorcha, he finds the family patriarch gone but is welcomed in. He is quickly besotted with Gorcha’s daughter Sdenka (Labed) but finds himself ill at ease around the family including Gorcha’s adult son Jegor (Colin) and his wife Anja (Duburcq), Jegor’s effeminate brother Piotr (Scheider), and Jegor and Anja’s young son Vlad (Pavie).

As the Marquis settles in to await Gorcha’s return, Beau starts to lay on the ominous stakes: Gorcha gave his children instructions that, should he return more than exactly six days later, they should kill in as he will be a vourdalak – a vampire-like being from Slavic folklore. Lo and behold, Gorcha arrives just slightly outside of that timeframe and things start to get deadly for all involved.

Beau’s telling of this age-old tale – previously seen in a segment of Mario Bava’s 1963 film Black Sabbath – appropriately feels like a throwback to the classic era of Jean Rollin and Hammer horror. The grainy Super 16 cinematography is laden with mood, supplemented by the beautiful shots of the woods from David Chizalle. Beau conjures an oppressive feel as the story contrasts the urbane, squeamish Marquis against the more salt of the earth-style family. It makes for an often-funny juxtaposition, but also keeps things off kilter so that when Gorcha arrives the horror can get down to business.

The film also shows its love for traditional ways by avoiding CGI in its monster design. Instead, Beau boldly turns to a marionette and his own voice to portray Gorcha. It’s a level of strangeness that works in its audacity; it others Gorcha and adds a level of surreality that plays quite well when things start to really ramp up in the final act.

And that last act is delightfully strange. The puppetry works far better than might initially be expected; thanks to his cinematic aptitude, Beat is able to make Gorcha do a number of entirely unexpected things in his quest to destroy those in the house. It barrels delightfully toward its conclusion with this low-fi special effect as the star of the show, matched up against Klein’s out-of-his-depth protagonist.

While the puppetry takes center stage in the final act, we never lose sight of the human characters thanks to the amount of time we spend with them. Klein and Labed are the stars here, turning the Marquis and Sdenka into interesting characters without too much backstory to work off in either case. And the rest of the family is giving exactly what they need to help sell the events. The film trades in well-worn tropes, but it is Beau’s work behind the camera and the chemistry between the cast that allows those familiar beats to shine.

While the slow burn story may turn a few people off early on, Beau keeps things engaging via the culture clash until it’s time to cut loose. The pacing is brisk and at 90 minutes, there certainly isn’t much time to get bored before the blood starts to flow. While it sometimes feels like vampire horror has hit every possible avenue of approach, The Vourdalak shows that it can still surprise you when given a chance.

The Vourdalak opens in theaters on June 28th.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
Alternately moody and funny, Adrien Beau’s The Vourdalak is a slow burn story that makes fantastic use of its throwback aesthetic to tell an engaging tale with a couple unforgettable moments of puppet debauchery. Beau makes fine use of what he's given, both from his cast and crew, to bring this classic vampire tale to life in an entirely new way. It's creative choices may not make it everyone's cup of tea (or blood), but it's a strong feature directorial debut and a very solid entry into 2024's vampire canon.

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The Vourdalak, Jeremy Thomas