Aleksey Tolstoy’s 1841 story ‘The Family of the Wurdalak’ was filmed by Mario Bava as the final episode of I tre volti della paura (Black Sabbath) in 1963 – and again in 1971 by Giorgio Ferroni as Le notte dei diavoli (Night of the Devils). There were versions in 2017 and 2020, so it’s obviously coming into fashion – after Dracula and Carmilla, it may be the third most-filmed vampire story.
Director Adrien Beau, who also co-scripted with Hadrien Bouvier, is the first to come at the Russian story from a French angle – Tolstoy wrote the story in French and the viewpoint character is a young French nobleman who volunteers to be sent East as a diplomatic emissary after a Paris love affair has gone wrong. Marquis Jacques Antoine Saturnin d’Urfe (Kacey Mottet Klein), complete with face-powder and wig, has been robbed in the wilds of Eastern Europe and seeks a horse in a village which has been ravaged by Turks – local patriarch Gorcha has set out to hunt down Turkish bandit Alibek, so the Marquis has to pass time with Gorcha’s cowed but hospitable adult children, crossdressing Piotr (Vassili Scheider), frustrated beauty Sdenka (Ariane Labed) and would-be head man Jegor (Gregoire Colin) plus Jegor’s wife (Claire Duburcq) and young son (Gabriel Davie). The Marquis takes a fancy to Sdenka, who is unmarriageable locally because she had an affair with an earlier passerby – who seems to have been shot by Gorcha – and she plainly dreams of escape.
Gorcha has said that if he isn’t back within six days he’s not to be admitted since he will have become a vourdalak – a kind of vampire who focuses on its own loved ones and has a range of tics and habits which separate it from the later Bram Stoker tradition. All previous films of this material make a meal of the moment when the clock chimes the deadline and the vampire Gorcha appears at the dor as the last chime of six rings … but Beau just has the family find a pile of rags and bones which turns out to be their father, for the reason that the director has chosen to represent the vampire by a terrifying, lipless Nosferatu-ish puppet which hobbles on a musket crutch, demands the severed head of Alibek be hung by the door and continues what has obviously been a reign of terror over his loved ones. In another innovation, this version of Gorcha’s family more than suspect what he is – though they deny it to the outsider – but are powerless to resist, since he alternates violent cruelty with cunning grantig of long-held wishes. The Marquis loses the powder and wig and gets battered about – being a French aristo he’s bi enough to flirt with Piotr and Sdenka but he’s also seduced – in one scene literally – by the clever, malicious monster. What could be scarier than a vampire? How about a vampire with a gun?
Shot on 16mm with a nice woodsy feel – closer to Ferroni than Bava – it’s a bold vision, with stylised yet affecting performances. There’s even a strange dance number. You have to be willing to accept a kind of reverse Muppet Christmas Carol effect where one character is a puppet and everyone else is an actor – but as an aesthetic it’s no stranger than films which revolve around CGI characters … and Gorcha is one of the nastiest vampires in the movies. This take on the story is spun as even more of a critique of patriarchy than any other – and it’s literally a story where a father destroys his family – since Sdenka is bumped up to replace d’Urfe in some key plot stretches with the apparent hero (as in the original story) played as much as a buffoon as a romantic adventurer.