Review: A Unique Take on Vampire Lore, The Vourdalak Is an Unsettling Watch and Welcome Addition to the Genre

Adapted from an Aleksei K. Tolstoy novella that predates Bram Stroker’s Dracula by more than 50 years, director/co-writer Adrien Beau’s The Vourdalak is an 18th century vampire story that remains unpredictable (and therefore entirely tension-filled) because it rarely adheres to the familiar vampire tropes. By keeping us guessing, the bloodsucking, purely evil creatures are able to be more manipulative and open about their schemes, while still having certain weaknesses that strong-willed humans can exploit.

The tale opens when a noble emissary of the King of France, Marquis d’Urfé (Kacey Mottet Klein) is attacked and abandoned in the remote countryside, finding himself in need of shelter and possible rescue. He’s directed to a strange, isolated home where the family is hesitant to take him in, as they wait for the return of their elderly father, Gorcha, who is off fighting in some manner of war. He’s made it clear that if he doesn’t return after a certain number of days, they should consider him dead, even if he does return—which naturally he does after his self-appointed deadline. Eldest son Jegor (Grégoire Colin) wants Gorcha (voiced by the director) back home no matter what, but Jegor's wife Anja (Claire Deburcq) and his younger brother Piotr (Vassili Schneider) see what is obvious: that Gorcha is simply a walking corpse that speaks such horrible thoughts that it’s clear he’s become some soldier of evil. Jegor and Anja have a young son, Vlad (Gabriel Pavie), who seems most at risk since he and his grandfather were once quite close, and this terrifying version of Gorcha seems intent on going after the boy first.

The Gorcha figure seems to be less an actor in makeup and more a life-size, skillfully manipulated marionette creature, which makes his movements unnatural and even unholy, while his words are cruel and biting and quick to induce madness in his family members. And eventually, after pitting relative against relative, he begins to feed on the blood of those around him. The word “vampire” is used only once in the film and not referring to whatever Gorcha and his victims have become (it’s more of an inside joke that anything), and it’s fascinating to watch a vampire story in which no one quite knows what to call these creatures. The atmosphere-soaked Vourdalak is truly unsettling, especially in the way the most obvious truths are ignored and loyalties are flexible to the point of being non-existent.

There are moments when The Vourdalak feels darkly comical, as if this evil is having a laugh at the family’s expense. And what we’re seeing at times seems so outrageous and jaw-dropping, you almost can’t help chuckle about it. But make no mistake: the overriding feeling while watching this film is dread, and I urge you to seek out this new kind of vampire story and embrace the experience of watching it in the theater (the film is presently only playing theatrically; thank you, Oscilloscope).

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.