Close this search box.

The Vourdalak Review: Trauma Through Vampirism

A creature drinks from a man's neck in the film The Vourdalak

In The Vourdalak, French filmmaker Adrien Beau reimagines the vampiric creature from Slavic folklore as a vessel for inherited trauma.

Director: Adrien Beau
Genre: Horror
Run Time: 91′
US Release: June 28, 2024
UK Release: TBA
Where to watch: in select US theaters

The Wurdalac (or Wurdalak) is a creature based on vampiric and lycan Slavic folklore that few people know about. This mythological beast, predating the classic horror figure from Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, does not function like the vampires you see continually portrayed. The Wurdalac must consume the blood of its loved ones, devouring everybody the person once held dear and giving them a life of misery, as fresh souls slowly turn into cadavers.

French filmmaker Adrien Beau uses the creature’s lore to tell a tale of patriarchal oppression and classism in his feature-length debut, The Vourdalak (Le Vourdalak), a bizarre yet fascinating concoction that blends the atmosphere and look of 70s folk horror pictures with modern horror movies’ pet topic of inherited trauma.

Based on Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy’s gothic novella ‘The Family of the Vourdalak,’ written in 1839 and published in 1884, the film tells the story of a womanizing French diplomat and envoy of the King of France, Marquis Jacques Antoine Saturnin d’Urfé (Kacey Mottet Klein), whose carriage breaks down in the wrong place at the wrong time. The man seeks solace in the dark of night yet is denied such due to some acts of pillaging taking place nearby by the Turks. He is told to look for the remote Gorcha household for a place to stay until a horse is fixed for him – that is, if he can survive the night in these haunted woods.

After almost losing all hope, Marquis stumbles upon a man named Piotr (Vassili Schneider), whom he mistakes for a woman from afar. By a moment that only lasts seconds, you immediately grasp what type of person the Marquis is: he looks down on people and judges their every decision because of their looks, class, and traditions. The look of disgust he has during the first strand of the film, together with his lavish outfits and powdered face, tell you that he is an entitled egotist that hides behind his so-called “power”. Though Piotr is uncomfortable with the situation, he leads Marquis to the Gorcha estate, revealing that he is youngest son of the owner, who is currently away.

Gorcha has left the family to fight the Turks. Meanwhile, his eldest son, Jegor (Grégoire Colin), and his wife, Anja (Claire Duburcq), keep the place clean. The eldest daughter, Sdenka (Ariane Labed), roams around the estate as a spinster – a single woman who is old enough to be married but isn’t – due to an affair for which the locals shamed her. Even though everybody casts her aside, the Marquis becomes infatuated with her. He looks into her eyes and is immediately sent into a trance. At first, he sees her as an object to fulfill his desires. But later on, she becomes his salvation as the story turns darker and showered in dread.

A vampire looks at a woman's neck in the film The Vourdalak
The Vourdalak (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Before he left, Gorcha told everyone that if he did not return in six days, he might have already turned into the Vourdalak, a creature that subjects its most cherished to a life of suffering. The Marquis arrives on the last day of this expedition, when the family is holding a dinner to be together if the worst-case scenario happens. The bells chime, signaling that the patriarch is now a vampiric beast. As they mourn the loss of the man they once loved, Jegor notices a pale, frail man lying down on the estate grounds, wheezing and coughing as if he is near death. Jegor recognizes him as his father: the missing Gorcha has found his way home. But there is something different about him.

This creature has Gorcha’s memories and voice, yet seems like a shell of his former self. He unwraps the scarves covering his face, slowly revealing the bony texture of the life-size puppet used to play the character; the director himself operates it, and imbues it with a brooding, sleepy voice. It is odd to have the titular vampiric figure be portrayed through puppetry. In all of my years watching horror movies, I have never seen anything like this, particularly in today’s age. At first glance, his appearance causes a quick laugh due to its unexpectedness. But, as the film goes on, it makes plenty of sense thematically. Much like the strings controlling the Vourdalak puppet, Gorcha manipulates his family to comply with his demands and follow his ruling; he threatens them with a deadly curse if they don’t.

Adrien Beau’s take on the Wurdalak explores how the trauma resulting from our loved ones’ behavior finds a way to control our mental stability. The creature torments one family member after another, condemning them to a life riddled with malice and melancholy: they become beasts forged by mythology and male dominance. It holds them hostage from a psychological point of view. They can’t escape his presence no matter what; he is felt by the dread that now plagues the estate. Beau shows the many ways Gorcha has made their lives a living hell throughout the years, specifically Sdenka’s, as she has suffered the most from his wrath.

The Vourdalak: Trailer (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

There is still love and admiration for the man who birthed them, as seen in the film’s first minutes when the family prepares for the worst. But the emotional wounds have never healed. As long as this vampiric creature roams through the halls of its ancestral home, this pain will be inherited by generations. His shadow, looms large, literally and figuratively, devouring each descendant’s heart with the specter of unresolved grief and the ache of the Gorcha’s submission on them. The family, bound by duty and legacy, tries to carry on. But their lives are forever marked by inescapable tragedy.

The Vourdalak is quite a fascinating project, with many bizarre stylistic choices that emulate the old-school 70s folk horror look, and it ends up working more efficiently than expected. The use of practical effects makes the movie a tactile experience that not many modern horror films can provide: you can perceive everything, from the mossy ground to the mist masquerading the night. It feels like a piece from a different time yet orchestrated with a modern audience in mind, as it covers similar thematic grounds. I would love to see Adrien Beau take on a different mythological creature or classic monster for his next piece of work, as with his creative mind and sharp talent, I’m sure he would make something rich in texture out of it.

The Vourdalak is now available to watch in select US theaters.

Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person Review
Film Review: Sara Montpetit shines in the stunning but unfocused Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person.
Thank you for reading us! If you’d like to help us continue to bring you our coverage of films and TV and keep the site completely free for everyone, please consider a donation.