Tag Archives: Marionette


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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FEATURING: David Homyk, MaryBeth Schroeder, voices of Will Cooper, Nick Reed, Misty Foster, Megan Rosen, Anthony Herrera

PLOT: Goot is tricked into selling his skin to Besto, and seeks revenge with the help of a similarly skinless “mermaid.”

Still from Gutboy: a Badtime Story (2017)

COMMENTS: Gutboy is a strange little creature, and the star of a strange little movie that occupies an odd niche on this site’s recommendation spectrum. The movie is slight and casual and doesn’t feel weighty or significant enough to challenge for a spot on our list of the weirdest films ever; and yet, it’s so darn weird that nearly every serious reader of this site will find something to enjoy in it. The “” tag affixed here is, therefore, an attempt to bring attention to this worthy amateur effort, while acknowledging that it doesn’t fit alongside some of the more serious or professional titles honored here.

Not that the movie doesn’t actually earn that “weirdest!” designation. (In fact, some argue that it works too hard for it.) Framed as a story told by an emcee to a sick boy who’s wheeled out before an audience of insects, the plot involves a fisherman tricked into selling his skin, who then immediately hooks a “mermaid” (a similarly skinless woman given to lines like “you learn a lot of things on the ocean floor… like how to please a man”) who tires to seduce him, and also grants him a wish. Gutboy doesn’t think to ask for his skin back, but instead asks to marry the policeman’s daughter. And the story just keeps getting odder when skin-merchant Besto breaks out his giants (portrayed by a well-toned couple of real live humans spray-painted gold) to wrestle for his amusement. Oh yes, and there are also musical numbers, ranging from show tunes to rockabilly and lo-fi punk and pop.

So yeah, it’s pretty strange. The marionettes are appropriately crude and grotesque: Gutboy and his paramour (who, after a brain-swapping mishap, becomes known as “Sophieguts Prettybutts”) look genuinely bloody, and for some reason have exposed brains. The other puppets are all quite ugly, too, bulbous and vaguely resembling antique Eastern European dolls, with sunken wooden eyes covered in black mold. The puppeteering is not particularly accomplished, but it doesn’t matter, given the project’s insouciant attitude. Any movie in which a wooden hooker on strings sings the line “porking me ain’t easy, and diddling me ain’t fun” isn’t aiming for much beyond cheap amusement.

The kitchen sink approach often turns a would-be weird movie into a unwatchable mess, but here it works to Gutboy‘s advantage, with each new quirk catching your attention, but not completely derailing the loose worldbuilding efforts. The movie is also helped immensely by its economical runtime: take out the four-minute introduction and the ten-minute post-credits “Titus Andronicus”-themed bonus short, and it runs just under an hour. Any longer, and it might have started to try your patience.

It might not surprise you to learn that Gutboy was a crowdfunded project. It played well enough in limited screenings that picked it up for distribution. It can now be seen free on Amazon Prime for subscribers.


“…a triplike piece of weirdness that defies all sorts of logic – and that’s exactly why it works so well…”–Mike Haberfelner, (re) Search My Trash


DIRECTED BY: Anders Rønnow Klarlund

FEATURING: Voices of James McAvoy, Catherine McCormack, , Julian Glover

PLOT: Hal, Crown Prince of a kingdom of marionettes, disguises himself as a commoner to try to uncover his father’s murderer.

Still from Strings (2004)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Strings is essentially a stock prince-grows-to-be-a-man-and-saves-the-kingdom high fantasy tale, but with a twist: everyone in the film is not only a marionette, they know they’re a marionette. The gimmick is used meaningfully, but given the standard-issue narrative, it’s not enough to movie this film from the “offbeat curiosity” into the “weird” column.

COMMENTS: Strings‘ basic plot, which involves an undercover prince, a kingdom in peril, intrigue and betrayal, prophecies, virtuous misunderstood rebels, appeals to the “power of love,” and a big battle at the end, is at the same time a bit confusing (with lots of characters, factions and subplots to keep track of) and overly familiar. That hardly matters, however, because the movie’s real pleasures come from admiring the meticulously constructed puppets as they dance across the boldly-lit diorama sets, and even more from the film’s creation of a complete marionette culture and mythology. The hand carved puppets have an Old World, doll-like charm, and although their faces are all frozen in neutral expressions, they exhibit an unexpected range of expressiveness just by raising or lowering their eyelids or tilting their heads that make them only slightly uncanny. The filmmakers make no attempt to hide the marionettes’ strings—even going so far as to title the movie after the darn things—and this is the most interesting and curious aspect of the  production. A dozen or more strings rise up from each character’s body, disappearing into the heavens above. A breathtaking aerial view illustrates why airplane flight would be impossible in this alternate reality, as we see thousands of strings rising above the moonlit clouds stretching up to infinity, each set connected to an invisible creature walking about the world below. The film explores every aspect of their strung-up existence; even the city gates and prison cells operate according to weird marionette logic. I won’t spoil every single thread, but it was fascinating to see the mystical “birth of a marionette” scene, as the mother brings the carved wooden block of a baby to life by painfully summoning strings to descend from the heavens, then attaching them to the lifeless wooden doll. It’s tough to figure out who this movie is aimed at—it’s too dark and weird for the kiddie matinee crowd, and not quite dark and weird enough for us—but that very singularity of vision and lack of a clear marketing angle gives it cult credibility. In the end, despite the fact that we don’t make much of a connection with the archetypal heroes, despise the stock villains, or feel much investment in the restoration of the kingdom, Strings still manages to be a visually beautiful and imagination-stimulating movie. And it finishes with an unexpectedly touching ceremony that takes the marionettes’ central metaphor, alien as it is, and uses it to tug a little on our heartstrings as well as theirs.

Strings contains a couple of nods to Shakespeare: the main character who seeks to avenge his slain father, the king, while being opposed by a deceitful uncle, bears a passing resemblance to “Hamlet.” Even more obviously, the protagonist who grows from a foolish boy to a competent king is named Prince Hal, just like the star of the “Henry IV” and “Henry V” plays.


“Essence of movie’s weirdness lies in its initial conceit… not quite strange enough to appeal to hardcore arthouse auds who savor the work of Jan Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay and the like, but neither is it cutesy enough to cross over to the mainstream.”–Leslie Felperin, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Teodor.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)