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FILM REVIEW: The Vourdalak (2023)

Updated: Jul 8

The Vourdalak - New Release Review


Director: Adrien Beau

Starring: Kacey Mottet Klein, Ariane Labed, Vassili Schneider, Grégoire Colin, Claire Duburcq


Written by: Adrien Beau, Hadrien Bouvier

Produced by: Judith Lou Lévy, Lola Pacchioni, Marco Pacchioni

Cinematography by: David Chizallet

Original Score by: Martin Le Nouvel, Maia Xifaras


Synopsis:

Lost in a hostile forest, the Marquis d'Urfé, a noble emissary of the King of France, finds refuge in the home of a strange family.


The Vourdalak Film Review

Thoughts:

Both darkly menacing and peculiarly humourous, 'The Vourdalak' is a triumph in atmospheric low budget filmmaking that hypnotized me from the opening sequence.



It's the 18th Century and an envoy to the King of France Marquis Jacques Antoine has been robbed of his belongings and horse and is wondering aimlessly through a forlorn forest somewhere in Eastern Europe. He is taken in by a family who are anxiously awaiting the return of their father Gorcha after he goes off in search of a criminal. Upon leaving, the patriarch leaves a letter for the family indicating that if he does not return within 6 days then he has perished. He leaves strict instructions that once the 6 days have elapsed the family must not, under any circumstances, allow him back onto their land or into their home.


Kacey Mottet Klein and Ariane Labed in The Vourdalak

The next day during a family lunch, Anja, Gorcha's daughter in law spots his lifeless body resting against a tree on the edge of the nearby forest. Jegor, Anja's husband, recovers his father's body and realises that he is actually still alive. However on close inspection it becomes very clear that this man is not their father who left a few days ago...


'The Vourdalak' is French filmmaker Adrien Beau's debut feature film and is based on the 1839 gothic novella 'The Family of the Vourdalak' by Russian poet, playwright and novelist Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy. It was first adapted by Giallo giant Mario Bava for the segment titled 'I Wurdulak' in the Boris Karloff starring 1963 horror classic 'Black Sabbath' and then again for the 1972 film 'The Night of the Devils' directed by another Italian filmmaker, Giorgio Ferroni.



But what the hell is a vourdalak you might say? Well it's a kind of vampiric creature that doesn't quite live by the common rules that a classic vampire lives by. Yes, a vourdalak sucks the blood from its victims, using it as sustenance in order to remain alive but it doesn't seem to possess typical fangs and it can walk around in daylight. To kill a vourdalak you must drive a stake through it's heart or burn it's home to the ground.


Kacey Mottet Klein in The Vourdalak

There's an eerie romanticism about the film, both thematically and visually. Some of it's imagery has a haunting yet beautiful glow about it, possibly because it was shot in glorious 16mm by David Chizallet, which allows us to feel like we're actually watching a film made decades ago. It even looks like it tinkers with silent-era style visual filters in it's use of natural lighting.



The entire cast are superb with particular mention to the two leads Kacey Mottet Klein and Ariane Labed. The expansive range of emotion they deliver through their impressive performances is wonderfully satisfying to watch as they both have the discipline to engage subtly with the audience in the way of a faint look off into the distance or elicit a stronger reaction with an outrageous and passionate kerfuffle.



Without question, the most memorable performance of the entire film and in fact the one lasting image that will stay with me for a very long time is that of the patriarch Gorcha. Once a strong and commanding paternal figure, now an almost skinless and souless deity, Gorcha is portrayed onscreen by a skeletal marionette with lips grossly peeled back to reveal large, ominous teeth. His protruding eyes, bulging with sinister intent and his bony fingers are reminiscent of a living corpse from classic 80s horror 'Return of the Living Dead'. Evident proof that taking the practical approach is far more terrifying and rewarding than anything CGI could attempt to do in this particular setting. The marionette glides effortlessly, almost spectre-like but weirdly with just as much personality, or even perhaps more, as any living character on screen. It's helped that it's voiced in such an imposing and grotesquely authoritative manner by the film's director Adrien Beau himself.


The Vourdalak Film Review

I adored the film's predilection for ancient lore and folk horror and Beau's strangely acute knack to find the right time for humour, which is inserted with a subtle assertiveness through the Gorcha character's reaction to his bewildered and terrified family and also through Jacques Antione's mime-like facial expressions, not too dissimilar to that of a sad clown pretending to be happy. There's a little bit of a commentary on the social class system here and the film definitely digs deep into the idea of family hierarchy, entitlement and absolutely explores societal conformity.



'The Vourdalak' isn't flawless and although its stepped with a portentous energy, it isn't particularly scary. But with its tethered yet powerful performances, disturbing soundscapes and gorgeous, macabre imagery, it will certainly leave a lasting impression on anyone with a penchant for arthouse cinema.


Verdict: ⭐️⭐️⭐️½


-Gavin Logan


'The Vourdalak' opens exclusively in US cinemas on June 28th from Oscilloscope Laboratories

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