popflick logo

"The Vourdalak": Tracking Dracula's Lineage in a Gothic Horror Wonder

Yum!: "The Vourdalak" sinks its teeth in kin. / Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Yum!: "The Vourdalak" sinks its teeth in kin. / Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Move over, Dracula. There is a new bloodsucker in town. Or rather, an older one. “The Vourdalak,” is the main fiend of Adrian Beau’s debut feature film. It springs out of Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy’s novella - not to be confused with his second cousin Leon Tolstoy, of “War & Peace” fame. The original text was based on a Slavic legend, published over 50 years before Bram Stoker unleashed his old count upon humanity. There’s no point in playing favorites. After all, both come straight from folklore. As portrayed in this irresistible melange of gothic horror and comedy, “The Vourdalak” deserves a place in our nightmares.

Things begin auspiciously. The French diplomat Marquis d’Urfé (Kacey Mottet Klein) wanders through the Serbian forest on a dark and stormy night. After suffering an assault by a gang of robbers, he is left without escorts, horses, or money. Eventually, he happens upon the farmhouse of one mysterious Gorcha. The man is absent, but his family takes d’Urfé in with apprehension. He is besotted by daughter Sdenka (Ariane Labed) with her stand-offish demeanor. Younger brother Piotr (Vassili Schneider) dresses as a woman when rough older brother Jegor (Grégoire Colin) is not looking. His wife Anja (Claire Duburcq) dotes on their young son Vlad (Gabriel Pavie). They all seem to dread the return of the Gorcha, off to hunt for Turkish invaders. Once he gets back, you realize they were absolutely right.

What's wrong with Dad?: Pavie, Duburq, Mottet Klein, Labed, and Schneider contemplate "The Vourdalak" / Photo courtesy of Ocilloscope Labs.

What's wrong with Dad?: Pavie, Duburq, Mottet Klein, Labed, and Schneider contemplate "The Vourdalak" / Photo courtesy of Ocilloscope Labs.

Familiarity with vampire lore will not keep you safe from “The Vourdalak.” Director Beau, working on the adaptation with Hardline Bouvier, latches on d’Urfé’s point of view so that we experience the horrors as he discovers them. The Marquis may be a swell member of the French court, but he is utterly unprepared to face monsters in the woods. He pines for Sdenka, but she looks down on his advances. She is something of an outcast in the family, too. Sometime in the past, she succumbed to the attention of a traveler with whom she was ready to elope. On the fated night of the escape, he was mysteriously killed. Since then, her days have been spent visiting his grave and contemplating throwing herself down a majestic cliff. 

There is no time for romance, or personal realization that does not follow traditional masculinity. Words to describe Piotr's gender-non conformity do not exist in "The Vourdalak"'s time, but it goes against what’s expected of him. He seems natural in contrast to the affectations of the powdered courtier. There is a third pole in this evisceration of manhood. Older brother Jegor looks like a giant made out of pure manliness - played by an unrecognizable Colin, a frequent collaborator of Claire Denis, as seen in “Beau Travail” (1998) and “Both Sides of the Blade” (2022) -. His handsomeness is tampered down by roughness. Jegor is physically imposing. An unruly handlebar mustache shadows most of his face. He dresses with heavy pelts and seems ready to hunt for human or animal prey at the drop of a hat. Alas, he is no match for Dad. When Gorcha returns, he can’t help but bend to his will.

Love is strange: powered dandy Mottet Klein tries a rough approach with Labed in "The Vourdalak" / Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Love is strange: powered dandy Mottet Klein tries a rough approach with Labed in "The Vourdalak" / Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Old Gorcha leaves a letter demanding the family not to let him in if he arrives after a certain timeframe. Fans of Dracula know what’s coming. When they find his body still breathing, close to the house but after the deadline, Jegor takes it upon himself to bring him in. Bad idea, Jegor. The father’s body looks emaciated. He is, literally, skin and bones, without any muscle. The living skeleton speaks in a haunting croak - Beau himself provides the voice. Gorcha's character comes to life through the best on-screen puppetry act since baby “Annette” (Leos Carax, 2021). 

Gorcha’s frightening appearance goes uncommented by his kin, who admirable keep a straight face. They know what's going on. He is now a Vourdalak, an evil creature who feasts on the blood of those he - it? - loved the most. This particularly horrifying piece of vampire lore missed the Dracula train. Sdenka and Piotr take familiar precautions - making stakes with birchwood, collecting garlic flowers -, while Jegor keeps going as if nothing happens. Devotion towards his father blinds him, with tragic results. 

Gorcha's character comes to life through the best on-screen puppetry act since baby “Annette” (Leos Carax, 2021).

Throughout the family drama, d’Urfé works as an audience surrogate, witness, and interloper. He also represents the incapability of civility to deal with the forces of obscurantism. The fantastic vampirism of the Vourdalak is presented as an objective reality that nobody can question. Despite the vastness of the forest, this is a rather claustrophobic affair. Most of the action is confined to the dark, stone-made farmhouse. In form and style, the movie plays as a French equivalent of “The VVitch” (Robert Eggers, 2015). Made in 2023, you can say it steals the thunder of Eggers' remake of “Nosferatu,” scheduled to open Christmas 2024. 

Gypsy curse: Labde won over critics at the 2023 Venice Film Festival with her turn in "The Vourdalak" / Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Gypsy curse: Labde won over critics at the 2023 Venice Film Festival with her turn in "The Vourdalak" / Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Beau may tie down his narrative less elegantly - no “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” epiphany here - but shares Eggers' playful knack for conveying the past through cinematic tricks. Gauzy lens distortion gives a dreamlike quality to many scenes. When d’Urfé spies the sleeping inhabitants of the farm, round masking brings you back to silent cinema irises’ tricks. Nightmares are conveyed in a black chamber - Gorcha embracing a victim from the back is one of the most terrifying images you’ll see this year. Even when the characters’ actions' defy credibility, you are convinced by the overpowering force of a legend coming to vivid life.

“The Vourdalak” careers to its inevitable resolution - again, there is no room for happy endings in scary legends -, leaving behind a trail of corpses and fantastic performances. Ariane Labed won a Special Mention from the Jury at the 2023 Venice Film Festival International Critic’s Week. Kacey Mottet Klein is amazing in a demanding role that puts him at the center of almost every scene in the film. He masterfully plays d’Urfé as a civilized man shedding his privilege in the face of unspeakable, untamed horror. That he finds an unexpected measure of true nobility in the process offers a pyrrhic victory. But it will have to do. This is the kind of movie you fear and love in equal parts.

  • "The Vourdalak" will open exclusively in theaters on June 28, from Oscilloscope Laboratories.
Movie poster

Watch “Metzger

Two brothers attempt to rob a goon who isn't as helpless as he seems.

Stream Now

Want to get an email when we publish new content?

Subscribe today