[Review] THE VOURDALAK (Le Vourdalak) [Calgary Underground Film Festival]: French Vampire Period Piece Dwells in the Uncanny Valley 

French period-piece horror feature The Vourdalak (Le Vourdalak; 2023) is like nothing else you are likely to watch this year, partly because of director Adrien Beau’s choice to use a marionette as the titular bloodsucking creature. The film also has a vivid feel to it — it was shot on 16mm film — and features highly effective stylized performances by its ensemble cast members.

Based on Aleksey Tolstoy’s 1841 story “The Family of the Wurdalak” — famously brought to cinematic life in Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963) —  The Vourdalak finds Marquis Jacques Antoine Saturnin d’Urfe (Kacey Mottet Klein)  seeking refuge at the home of a family living in Moldavia, their town having been recently attacked by Turks. Family patriarch Gorcha has gone looking for a Turkish bandit, with instructions not to let him into the house if he has been gone for more than six days because he may then be a vourdalak — a vampiric creature that preys on its own family members. 

Gorcha’s eldest son Jegor (Grégoire Colin) tells d’Urfe — who evidently was not robbed of his wig nor facial powder — that he will find him a horse for his future travels. Jegor’s crossdressing brother Piotr (Vassili Scheider) and mysterious sister Sdenka (Ariane Labed) share the abode with Jegor and his wife Anja (Claire Duburcq) and their young son (Gabriel Pavie) Vlad. The marquis seems in no hurry to leave the family’s hospitality, partly because he has become enamored with the bewitching Sdenka. Then, Gotcha returns home — just as six days pass.

Beau, who cowrote the screenplay with Hadrien Bouvier, has crafted a gorgeous-looking take on gothic vampire horror, rich with chills and thrills as the family is torn between their suspicions that Gorcha may indeed be a vourdalak, as Jegor demands respect for his father despite the man’s hideous appearance — and newfound appetite. The characters are wonderfully written and superbly acted, with Klein leading the way in a pitch-perfect performance. The set design and costuming are stunning, strikingly captured by cinematographer David Chizalett.

The nonhuman star of The Vourdalak is the marionette used to portray vampiristic Gorcha, with Beau providing the character’s voice. The valley of the uncanny is at full strength here, as the patriarch vourdalak is one of the meanest-spirited, most despotic members of the undead ever committed to cinematic storytelling. Gorcha rules the family in a heavy-handed manner, and is sly and manipulative, and d’Urfe is, naturally, not safe from this beast, who hints that he may soon consider the Marquis as a family member. 

The Vourdalak is one of the absolute finest horror films I have seen in recent memory, and is a shoe-in for my list of the best fright-fare films of this year. With masterful direction and brilliant performances — along with a jaw-dropping climax — it is also visually splendid. Aficionados of vampire tales and gothic and psychological horror, along with cinephiles of all stripes, should consider The Vourdalak to be must-see viewing.

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

The Vourdalak screens as part of the 21st Calgary Underground Film Festival, which runs April 18–28, 2024. For more information, visit https://www.calgaryundergroundfilm.org/.

Joseph Perry
Joseph Perry fell in love with horror films as a preschooler when he first saw the Gill-Man swim across the TV screen in "The Creature from The Black Lagoon" and Mothra battle Godzilla in "Godzilla Vs. The Thing.” His education in fright fare continued with TV series such as "The Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits," along with legendary northern California horror host Bob Wilkins’ "Creature Features." His love for silver age and golden age comic books, including horror titles from Gold Key, Dell, and Marvel started around age 5.

He is a contributing writer for the "Phantom of the Movies VideoScope" and “Drive-In Asylum” print magazines and the websites Horror Fuel, Diabolique Magazine, The Scariest Things, B&S About Movies, and When It Was Cool. He is a co-host of the "Uphill Both Ways" pop culture nostalgia podcast and also writes for its website. Joseph occasionally proudly co-writes articles with his son Cohen Perry, who is a film critic in his own right.

A former northern Californian and Oregonian, Joseph has been teaching, writing, and living in South Korea since 2008.