Tuesday, June 25, 2024

The Vourdalak: A French Take on A. K. Tolstoy

Dracula is a predator, who stalks and seduces his prey. The Vourdalak is a terrorist, who menaces and exterminates entire families. They are both vampires with 19th Century literary roots. While A.K. Tolstoy’s Vourdalak predates Dracula, Stoker’s bloodsucker has been far more popular in film. Nevertheless, the Vourdalak filmography has grown steadily in recent years. Director Adrien Beau adds his contribution when the French-language The Vourdalak opens this Friday in theaters.

As many horror fans know from the Mario Bava anthology
Black Sunday, a traveling nobleman finds shelter with a family that has a serious Vourdalak problem. In this case, the Marquis Jacques Antoine Saturnin d’Urfe is a lightweight twit, who probably will not be missed by his elite family. On the other hand, gruff Jegor and his grown siblings have definitely been missing their father Gorcha. He soon returns home, but he seems changed.

Frankly, the death’s head-looking Gorcha is more creepily emaciated than the skeletal Dracula in
The Last Voyage of the Demeter. D’Urfe’s hosts should have immediately staked him, but Jegor is too blinded by filial loyalty.

Somehow, Beau uses trappings of historical drama, the powdered wigs and the rancid mud and fetid muck, to create a weirdly sickly vibe. His
Vourdalak might not be the scariest horror film ever, but it is one of the last ones you would choose to place yourself into via a virtual reality simulation. Also, on a subconsciously level, d’Urfe’s dandified dress and his talk of courtly malaise reinforce the vibe of decay and corruption.

Gorcha (voiced by Beau) is spectacularly creepy, like a life-size, live-action Crypt-Keeper. Everything about him is spectacularly foul, in a very cool way. Usually, it takes a while for Gorcha to return in
Vourdalak adaptations, but Beau was obviously eager to introduce him—with good reason.

The rest of the film is rather hit or miss. D’Urfe’s clumsily courtship of Jegor’s “disgraced” sister Sdenka mostly misses the mark and their ambiguously gothy little brother Piotr is a ridiculous anachronism for 18
th Century Carpathian (or Balkan or some such region) peasantry. However, Gregor Colin portrays old Jegor suitable earthiness and intensity. He is one tough peasant.

It is rather interesting to see the pool of Vourdalak movies growing, so we can compare and contrast. Beau’s take is more distinctive than
A Taste of Blood from Argentina, but it is hard to compete with Bava (or a cool animated film, like Sam Chou’s VRDLK). Enthusiastically recommended for genre fans, for the wild and sinister Borcha, Beau’s The Vourdalak opens Friday (6/28) in New York, at the IFC Center.