Thursday, July 29, 2010

Leptirica – review

Director: Djordje Kadijevic

Release date: 1973

Contains spoilers

Leptirica (the she-butterfly) is another one of the great sins of vampire cinema, in that it is begging for a fully restored DVD release – possibly as a double set with Kadijevic’s 1990 reworking of Viy, Sveto Mesto.

This film is fascinating because of the very pure Slavic lore the film taps into. It is based on the story “Posle Devedeset Godina” or “90 Years Later” by Milovan Glišić. The story features a folkloric vampire who goes by the name Sava Savanović. The film is so rich in lore that I will, with genuine glee, spoil the story completely.

Slobodan Perovic as Zivan
It begins with a man, Zivan (Slobodan Perovic) leading his horse to a mill. He calls for the miller, Vule (Toma Kuruzovic), and when he gets no response he carries his grain in. Vule has been napping, lulled to sleep by the sound of the mill. There are the uncanny cries of an owl, which Vule shoos to, and Zivan asks whether the miller sleeps there at night, he does, and whether he is afraid. Outside the mill we see Radojka (Mirjana Nikolic) on a hillside, identified by Vule as Zivan’s daughter and, as he puts it, as pretty as a butterfly.

teeth aplenty
He enters the mill again and, after a while, the eerie owl calls begin again. He exclaims ‘drop dead’ before falling asleep. We see the mill stop. A pair of eyes appear, monstrous, looking in at Vule through the boards of the wall and then we see a dark, hirsute and clawed hand touch the flour – poetically contrasting the white and black. A hooded creature is seen, its teeth sharp are monstrous and it bites at Vule’s neck. When it leaves the mill restarts but Vule is dead.

Petar Bizivic as Strahinja
He is found the next day by one of the villagers and we discover that he is the third or fourth miller killed in the last year. Vampires are mentioned as is the word vukodlak – a particular Slavic name for a vampire, indeed Sava Savanović himself is mentioned; but all of these are dismissed as silly folklore. Meanwhile a young man, Strahinja (Petar Bozovic), has gone to Radojka. It is clear that they are in love but she says that Zivan has invited suitors for her hand. When Zevan appears she tells Strahinja to run and is subsequently told off by Zevan for being where she is.

evil eyes
Strahinja asks Zevan for Radojka’s hand in marriage but is given short shrift as he is poor. He decides he will leave the area as he cannot stand watching her marry another. However the men of the village see him and suggest he becomes the new miller, something he agrees to. Again, on his first night in the mill, the mill stops and again the eyes look into the mill. Strahinja falls, pulling bags of flour with him, and somehow – through luck and clumsiness, it seems – manages to survive the night, though at first the men fear the white apparition (he is covered in flour) they see.

The men decide to find the grave of Sava Savanović. They question an old woman, Mirjanicka, and eventually get an idea of where the alleged vampire’s grave should be. The search seems futile until one of the men decides to get hold of Zivan’s stallion. We have come across using a horse to find the grave of a vampire before and at this point I would like to start referencing the book The Vampire: A Casebook edited by Alan Dundes – for the sake of this review I have used the edition on Google Books. In the chapter “In Defence of Vampires” by John V A Fine Jr we find a quote by Vuk Karadžić, “they take a black stallion without any spots or marks to the graveyard and lead it among the graves where it is suspected there are vukodlaks, for they say that such a stallion does not dare to step over a vukodlak.”.

Radojka in the forest
Whilst they are getting the stallion we see Radojka in the woods, she listens to the sound of the owls and it seems that there is almost a sexual tension in the air. Meanwhile the men have found the grave and start to dig until they find a coffin and they hammer a stake through the unopened lid as the priest prays. This, again, has a folkloric root but, of course, one we are more familiar with. However more interesting is the appearance of a butterfly from the coffin (through the hole in the lid). The men try to catch it but fail. Returning to The Vampire: A Casebook and South Slavic Countermeasures against Vampires by Friedrich S Krauss we read, “the others present watch for the appearance of a moth (or butterfly) flying away from the grave. If one does fly out of the grave, everyone runs after it in order to capture it. If it is caught, it is thrown onto a bonfire so that it will die. Only then is the vampire completely destroyed. If the butterfly escapes, however, then, alas, woe to the village…”

priest in prayer
The men obviously haven’t read Krauss and are somewhat happier in disposition then they should be. They are quite taken with Strahinja and suggest that he should simply take Radojka as his wife – something the priest concurs with. Someone also, interestingly, suggests that Zivan is not her father but an uncle, maybe. They go get her and an angry Zivan watches from a distance. He catches the butterfly and vows vengeance. Tradition states that Radojka must stay in a house guarded by a woman for one night but Strahinja tells her that he will go to her.

wound in the torso
He sneaks into the house and is undressing her when he discovers that she has a gaping wound in her abdomen – perhaps as though a stake had pierced her stomach. She starts to transform before him, becoming fanged and then hirsute. You should remember that there is little difference, traditionally, between the werewolf and the vampire and thus her appearance is not so unusual.

She leaps on his back, but she is not attacking him – not at this point. She grabs his mouth and, if we look forward in time to Kadijevic’s Sveto Mesto, the actions are identical to the hag coming to Toma. She is hag-riding him and she directs him straight to the grave. When she lets go she continues to push him forwards, towards the grave. Strahinja starts to pull at the stake that still protrudes from the coffin and Radojka reacts as though the stake is being pulled from her. He retrieves the stake and she falls, all we see is her white nightdress and the coffin opens. In a moment of duality the vukodlak Radojka emerges from the coffin, in black, she turns and runs at Strahinja who lifts the stake before him.

The film ends in the morning with Strahinja led motionless in the meadow and the butterfly sat upon his temple. So the film has ended, but what a film. It packs in such a lot of traditional Slavic lore that for the dedicated fan of the genre it is a must see film. I liked the use of the butterfly, which was much more dignified than the use of moths in the Blood Beast Terror. We should remember that Stoker himself mentioned a vampiric affinity with moths in Dracula when he suggested “he can command all the meaner things, the rat, and the owl, and the bat, the moth, and the fox, and the wolf”. In this however, I think the butterfly was representative of the vampire’s soul or spirit.

changing on the wedding night
The film is creepy and rather atmospheric, the mill being a great location. This fits in with tradition. Returning to the Vuk Karadžić quote, he tells us that, “in times of hunger vampires often gather near mills and around granaries.” It seems a little dreamlike in places though I suspect that the film showed its hand too early with the attack on Vule being so explicit – the argument that it wasn’t something supernatural, that the men have, seems half-hearted at best at that point, especially as they take little convincing to use traditional detection methods thereafter.

That aside an important film begging for a full re-mastered international release. 7.5 out of 10. The imdb page is here.


Zahir Blue said...

This looks fascinating! Thanks for the heads' up!

Gabriel said...

Rightio. Looking for this. NOW.

I don't know how you keep finding these gems in the rough, but I appreciate it immensely all the same :D

Taliesin_ttlg said...


OllieMugwump said...

I'm glad you've finally reviewed this.

It's certainly great to view a genre film from a country where vampirism was prevailent.

It seemed to me that Zivan was Savanovic all along (notice it was his eyes peeking into the mill) and Radojka was his vampiric protogee.

I downloaded Prof. P. Jones' "The Pobratim" (1895) whose narrative contains a number of traditional Slavic lore, my favourite being 'The Story of Jella and the Magic' where the title character ends up happy with her Vila (fairy) prince and her gold-digging parents both end up falling prey to a cemetery full of vampires/vukodlaks.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Ollie, hi, it ook awhile to get subs!

The Zivan theory is an interesting take on the story - and certainly possible in what we see.

I must have a look for the probatim.

House of Karnstein said...

Cheers for that review, Taliesin. This director is easily one of my fave "director discoveries" of the last few years. It almost seems as though some invisible dark spirit from the haunted forest is sexually awakening the beautiful girl. Pay close attention to her eyes, which gives the impression that "something" is there (though we the viewer, can't see it). One of several fascinating moments in this gem of a vamper. I gotta' go 8 out of 10 fangs but you and I are very close on this one.. ;)

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi HoK, I agree, this was why I said that "it seems that there is almost a sexual tension in the air.".

Indeed I was reminded a little, in tone I guess, of Valerie and he Week of Wonders

I think my score dipped a little because of the showing of the hand so early making the protests seem half hearted. That said 7.5 is a darn respectable score and I can see why you'd go 8/

House of Karnstein said...

"Indeed I was reminded a little, in tone I guess, of Valerie and her Week of Wonders"

Good call, Taliesin. Slavic horror movies rule! Now if I could just find the Polish 1980 Carmilla I'd be in vamp heaven. ;)

Zahir Blue said...

I wrote a review of the Polish Carmilla.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Zahir certainly did and it can be found here.

House of Karnstein said...

Fangtastic! Thanks for the review guys and NICE score, Zahir. Very impressive. :)

Christine said...

Vampiric folklore, yes!

Milos Jovic said...

Greetings. I'm a bit late with commenting on the subject since it was started in 2010 as i can see. I'm from Serbia, and it makes me happy to see that you've found ''Leptirica'', watched it and liked it allot. It sure is a ''gem'' that made me a fan of vampires. Đjorđe Kadijević is also one of my favorite directors. Since you've liked it that much i'll share a fun fact about this movie: It aired in 1972, on national TV station. Though originally intended to air in the evening, it aired by mistake on a afternoon schedule, causing many children across the country to have mental breakdowns and terrible nightmares for weeks. The movie was banned and hasn't aired until many years later. It sounds silly, but it caused a great fuss at the time, since it was the first horror movie in the history of Balkan Peninsula. Supposedly, one man from the town of Kumanovo had a heart attack during the airing. Some mothers without a solution to cure their children's nightmares afterwards, took them to Mirjana Nikolić ( the main star; the beautiful lady that played the role of Radojka, aka, She-Butterfly), just to show them that she is a regular person, and that she had no fangs. Mirjana Nikolić talked about this during an interview, stating that she was baffled by the fact that so many terrified children came at her doorstep, and that she did all she could to make their nightmares gone. ( I, myself would give anything to just be able stand at her doorstep at the time, though i'm born much, much later. ;) ). Fun fact about the director: He is known for having a very harsh attitude towards his actors. It is known that, when angry, he was capable of throwing things at them, hitting them, slapping them, beating them etc. A very bad tempered person to say the least, but a talented one, check out his other made for TV horror movies. '' Devičanska svirka '' for example or '' Štićenik ''... Enjoy.

Best Regards.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Milos, many thanks for that, those are great stories. I'm glad you've found the blog :)

You'll see elsewhere that the original story has, finally, been translated into English so I was able to enjoy that: