Thursday, November 30, 2017

Semya Vurdalakov – review

Directors: Gennadiy Klimov & Igor Shavlak

Release date: 1990

Contains spoilers

The Necrorealism art movement was a Russian movement that is little known outside that country. I have featured a film from that school previously in the form of Daddy, Santa Claus is Dead. I’m not sure whether art critics class Semya Vurdalakov (or the Vampire Family) as part of that movement but I got a sense of the same underlying symbolism and despair – though this was nowhere near as absurdist.

That said this was, like the later released film, based on Tolstoy’s the Family of the Vourdalak. The story has been filmed by the Italian horror school, of course, wonderfully by Mario Bava as one of the tales in Black Sabbath and as a feature the Night of the Devils, but it seems fitting that it also inspired films in Russia. This film, whilst adjusting the premise slightly, followed the story quite faithfully – to a point.

the old man
We begin in the country and the soundtrack of the slow piano is hauntingly effective. The soundtrack seemed to carry a lot of static and the print was of VHS quality but the film is a rarity and the visual print actually suited the film. We see a figure walking through the fields, and then are shown icons and religious paintings. A coffin is prised open by a bearded man, a ruby ring adorns the corpse’s hand. As he reaches for it the corpse grabs his hand. In the city a young man awakens as though the events we have just seen are his dream.

the photo-journalist
The man is a photojournalist – and also seems to be an affable office clown despite the fact that his reportage concentrates upon death. Indeed when he goes to see his editor he is asked how he is able to take pictures of corpses with no fear – he claims he is not afraid of anything. He is given a new assignment, there has been some kind of scandal with an art restorer who believes in the supernatural, and he is to make it look more frightful. The reporter is getting married in three days but the Chief believes he can be finished in two.

the restorer
He goes to the restorer. There is a painting of a patriarch who, the restorer says, is famous in the area and was said to have sold his soul for immortality. He refuses to show the reporter the piece he is working on. Then the film takes a sideways slide into surreality as the reporter is on a boat being rowed out to an island, said to be haunted by vampires, and taken to a farmhouse. The family living there consisted of an old man (the one from the head of the film) now deceased, two brothers and a sister plus the wife of one of the brothers and their child.

It has been nine days since the old man died (almost) and the tradition is that his name should not be spoken or he will return from the grave and drink the family's blood. This is actually one form of vampiric lore that we have seen before in the short film the Cursed Days (though ten days were used and it was a general warning not to speak their names whilst away at war) and I did liken that short film to Tolstoy’s story. At the dinner table the child asks for his grandfather by name and it is just before the end of the ninth day. The old man does return, almost immediately.

the grandson
As with Tolstoy’s story the grandfather first looks to his grandson, whilst the hero falls for the daughter. There is a city and country clash that seems almost as though they are in different eras. It is fitting, therefore, that time seemed to pass by at a different pace in the country compared to the city. This version of the tale had more of a dreamlike quality than perhaps some versions but the ending, whilst fitting with the qualities described, could have done with being tightened up and, unfortunately, is a tad disappointing. The dreamlike quality will put some off and it is certainly not the best narrative version of Tolstoy’s tale though I found it visually striking despite (or maybe because of) the print. 5 out of 10.

The episode's imdb page is here.

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