Saturday, February 26, 2011

In short: Semya Vurdalakov (1990)

aka The Vampire Family

A newspaper sends a young reporter (Igor Shavlak) into the Russian countryside to make a nice, sensationalist yarn out of some strange stories going around about things are supposedly happening there. Our reporter friend, who might or might not be called Igor, isn't too enamoured of the job, seeing how he is supposed to get married in three days, but his boss is sure that he'll get his story in no time at all and sends Igor anyway.

Once in the countryside, Igor is accommodated by a peasant family living right in the middle of nowhere close to a ruined church. There, his story awaits him. The family is convinced that their dead patriarch, only going by "grandfather", will return from the dead as a blood-drinking fiend exactly nine and a half days after his demise, which would be right during Igor's first dinner with them. Frighteningly enough, when it's dinner time all electric lights go out, and the old man appears. He seems unaggressive enough, but when everyone's asleep, he lures the family's young son to him and drinks of his blood. This is only the beginning of some terrifying days for Igor and the family, during which the reporter still manages to fall for the daughter of the house. That's not necessarily the best thing to do when the dead have grown cold and hungry.

Ah, the wonders of the Internet and the films the efforts of fansubbers can bring you in contact with! I know next to nothing about Semya Vurdalakov, except that it was directed during the last gasps of the Soviet Union by a gentleman called Gennadiy Klimov (and possibly co-directed by its lead actor Igor Shavlak) and is based on the same short story of Alexei Tolstoi that Mario Bava used for the Wurdulak episode in his Black Sabbath. The whys and wherefores of the production are closed to me as someone who doesn't speak or read Russian.

What I do know about the film is what I have seen. A mood piece, slowly but surely gliding through pictures of the sort of poetry of decay and dilapidation that spells doom in every horror film, beginning in a comparatively bland and naturalistic Moscow and (just as Igor does) growing into a more dream-like sense of space and time in the country, as if the landscape itself would dislocate the protagonist (and his audience) from space and time as he knows and understands it. The narrative grows consistently less linear and logical until what once was clear becomes murky, difficult and utterly ambiguous. In the end, even a return to Moscow can't put in order again what was unhinged.

Klimov makes excellent use of not quite real seeming landscape and run-down buildings, using nature and man-made structures as markers of an entropic movement that grows in tempo the longer the film runs. On a more prosaic level, the director also really knows his stuff when it comes to the uses of different types of lighting. There's not much more effective than the first time the film shows the old, dead man by gaslight, his family already looking as dead as he is in the light he brought with him; foreshadowing actually does work when used like this.

The truly exciting thing about Semya Vurdalakov though is, that a scene like the one I just described isn't an exception in a workmanlike film, but typical for the way Klimov imbues everything on screen with additional meaning, until it's impossible to divide the symbolic and the concrete from each other anymore.


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