Monday, August 24, 2015

Semya vurdalakov (1990)

... aka: Семья вурдалаков
... aka: Family of Vampires
... aka: Vampire Family, The

Directed by:
Gennadiy Klimov
Igor Shavlak

After “The Wurdalak” segment in Mario Bava's three-part anthology Black Sabbath (1963) and Giorgio Ferroni's little-seen Italian / Spanish co-production La notte dei diavoli aka Night of the Devils (1972), this is the third credited screen version of writer Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy's Gothic novelette “Sem'ya vurdalaka,” which was written in 1839 and first published in 1884. This version, just like the source author, is from Russia but, unlike the two earlier screen versions, it's never been released here in America. All I know about this film is that it was shown regularly on Russian television in the early 90s and I can find no evidence of it being released elsewhere (at film festivals, in other countries, etc.), though it's certainly possible that is was and I just don't know about it. Just like Ferroni's film (but unlike Bava's take on the story), the events have been updated to the times. This is set exactly when it was filmed and features a modern protagonist who ventures into a rural area that's so backwoods and secluded and cut off from the rest of the world that it may as well still be the 1800s there.

Moscow journalist / photographer Igor (co-director / co-writer Shavlak) is about to be married in three days so he's not too happy when his pushy boss insists he spend several days out of town working on a story. Rumors have been circulating around about a small farming village called Khutor where, supposedly, the population has been mysteriously dying off and no one knows exactly why. Igor makes the long trip to Khutor, which includes a boat trip and a long hike through the woods and an old cemetery because the village is so remote there's no actual road leading to it. Before dropping him off, his guide warns him that the locals are extremely superstitious and legend has it that they believe the dead can come back to life as blood-hungry fiends if certain rules (namely saying the name of the deceased aloud within 9 days of their death) are ignored.

Igor arranges to rent a room from an extremely gloomy extended family, which includes three siblings – Georgiy (Nikolay Kochegarov), another brother whose name is never given and the young, beautiful sister Maria (Yelena Karadzhova). Georgiy's wife Anna and their young son Nikita also live in the home and all are grieving the recent loss of family patriarch Jacob. Nine days after Jacob's death, he comes back to the home late at night and isn't quite the same guy he was before he passed away. Now cursed to live as a vurdalak (basically a vampire), Jacob begins feasting on his family as they sleep. He first drinks from the weakest members of the family, starting with his once-beloved pet dog, who turns on him and is found dead and drained of blood soon after. Up next is Nikita, who's found ill with bloody puncture wounds on his neck one day and is dead the next. After his two day stay, Igor has to leave. Before he goes, Maria (whom he's fallen in love with despite the fact she hasn't said three words to him his entire stay) hands over a silver medallion and disappears into the weeds.

Upon returning to Moscow, Igor is flummoxed to discover that he wasn't gone for just two days like he thought, but actually a week and a half. His boss is pissed and his co-workers are just relieved to see him, but his fiancee won't even answer the phone when he tries calling. Some friends eventually show up to take him on a hunting trip and then he either loses his mind or somehow ends up in an abandoned house with certain members of the cursed family who've been transformed into vurdalak. The events are shown in a rather abstract fashion, which both works and doesn't work. It works when we're talking about the clever way the filmmakers show brief flashes detailing the fate of the rest of the family to avoid repetition and it doesn't work because after a certain point this pretty much stops making sense.

Watching this, I was alternately fascinated and frustrated. The atmosphere is very compelling and this does a fantastic job establishing a dreary Gothic mood. The art direction and shooting locations are both very good and there are many excellently-framed shots of the moon, the mist-covered lake, the crumbling old buildings and cemeteries, creepy-looking trees, fields of long grass and such that often make this feel more like a product of the 60s or 70s than the early 90s (in a good way). Shooting rural / outdoor locations in a way that makes them feel eerie and almost otherworldly really takes a special kind of talent and the people who made this one certainly have it. Vladimir Davydenko contributes an outstandingly creepy score to the film, which also helps to turn it into a sporadically-brilliant little mood piece.

Unfortunately, this just has too many narrative / coherence problems to simply ignore. Admittedly, that may be due in part to the English subtitle translations, but I was frequently confused about the characters and their motivations. That not only applies to our hero but also other side characters like the editor-in-chief and a cranky old artist Igor visits during one head-scratching scene. There's no explanation behind the significance of the medallion nor is there any explanation why 9 ½ days fly by and Igor only thinks it's been two. The film goes even more off the rails during the final 15 minutes when the filmmakers opt to go the Serious Artiste route instead of following through with the (mostly) coherent story they've already established. Since all of the characters are one-note, sullen blanks we know nothing about nor care anything about, the dramatic components are already pretty impotent to begin with even before they start getting all weird on us.

I could almost forgive much of the above had the lighting and the photography been a bit better. Don't get me wrong, this film has a great overall look to it but it's also often impenetrably dark for long stretches of time. Since these periods of complete darkness also happen to be when almost all of the action and horror are taking place I often couldn't tell what character was even involved in the scene, let alone what was happening to them. Considering the print I viewed was perfectly watchable otherwise, I can only assume they shot it this way on purpose to make it all more "real," but it also makes things even more confusing. And for the record, if a better, brighter print ever surfaces, I'd have no issue giving this one another look. I think an improved presentation really could help in this particular case and I'd probably end up boosting the rating by half a point.

Even taking into consideration the problems I had watching this one (which won't even be problems for certain viewers), I still heartily recommend this to fans of atmospheric horror. IMDb and various other websites list it as being 82 minutes long, but the one I watched was 78 and doesn't appear to have been cut.

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