Le Vourdalak

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DIRECTED BY: Adrien Beau

FEATURING: , , Grégoire Colin, the voice of Adrien Beau

PLOT: Somewhere in the Balkans, a French nobleman finds himself enduring the hospitality of an isolated peasant family whose patriarch has gone missing.

Still from The Vourdalak (2023)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: There are too few fish-out-of-water “Horror of manners” films featuring eloquent and sickening man-eating marionette monsters. The Vourdalak does its bit to fill this regrettable gap.

COMMENTS: Pity the poor Marquis Jacques Antoine Saturnin d’Urfé, an emissary de-horsed by roaming Turkish bandits. Pity, also, Jegor and Anya, a poverty-stricken couple forced to provide for Jegor’s ailing father Gorcha, outré sister Sdenka, troubled brother Piotr, and young son Vlad. Pity all of the rest of them, too, while you’re at it—except, perhaps, Gorcha. Or, perhaps you should. After all, he did clearly write in a parting note that if he were to return after the stroke of six o’clock, six days hence, he should immediately be murdered, as it would not actually be his self, but his body as corrupted by an evil, slobbering vourdalak. It may well have been a good, if superannuated, patriarch who went off to fight the bandits, but whatever returned is creepy, creepy, creepy.

The first act of The Vourdalak plays much like a period comedy piece, as the hapless Marquis skates between chagrin at his unlucky circumstances, awkward gratitude toward his lowly hosts, and a growing affection for the fay—and disgraced—Sdenka. He flirts, poorly, recounts go-nowhere anecdotes, and at one point, unprovoked, demonstrates his sarabande steps. (This last item turns out to be something of an important plot point, as the Marquis’ dancing chops end up, perhaps, saving his life later in the film.) The awkward whimsy turns dark at the spontaneous arrival, after six o’clock on the sixth day of absence, of a heavily bound, gaunt form: Gorcha, bearing with him the head of a troublesome Turkish bandit to be “hung above the door to send a message.”

The second and third acts chronicle the family’s downfall, as witnessed by the well-meaning, but regrettably inept, Marquis d’Urfé. Familial drama travels alongside familial dread, and the experience is increasingly peppered by Gorcha, now quite obviously—to everyone but his son Jegor—a sinister vourdalak. I couldn’t hope to do much justice in describing this fiend of legend (or, at least, of Tolstoian devisement), but the monster’s effects on the narrative and cinematic experience are alternately jarring and poetical—though, even when poetical, also rather jarring. A human-sized marionette, the creature is voiced and performed, so to speak, by the director, who has given his creation a personality situated somewhere between a mindless blood-sucker and the charming Uncle Irvin from The City of Lost Children.

Much of The Vourdalak‘s strangeness stems from this puppet creature, but the surrounding family add their own little bits of the bizarre. Piotr, the younger brother, is in the habit of dressing as a woman, something never explained and which, refreshingly, never elicits judgment from his siblings. Anja, the wife, maintains a subdued mania until the surrounding tragedies pile on too strongly. And of course, there’s the mysterious Sdenka, who nurses the most life-positive suicidal ambitions I’ve ever heard. Indeed, with its tight cast and ghoulish flourishes, The Vourdalak feels like a hit-and-run by the weird wagon: briefly dazing the viewer whilst doffing its cap with a “Pardon. Excuse me. Sorry!” as it lurches into the distance.

The Vourdalak is currently in limited release in theaters. We will update once at-home viewing options become available.


“…an intimate, though always dreamlike piece of world-building… what’s key is the strangeness of the setting… the film’s real triumph is in its use of a marionette: it’s absolutely horrible. It makes you recoil, and it’s full of ghastly otherworldliness, just what you need for a Gothic tale like this one.” — Keri O’Shea, Warped Perspective (contemporaneous)

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