A horror film renaissance is unfolding that’s largely being ignored or has gone unappreciated. While Hollywood continues to pummel us all with over-hyped, self-conscious and all too predictable and derivative movies like CABIN IN THE WOODS, Tim Burton’s recent DARK SHADOWS remake or the ongoing SAW and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY series, independent or smaller budgeted films made in Europe, Britain, Asia and Australia as well as the US are exploring new ground and turning the genre on its head.
Unfortunately, these films rarely make it into US theaters outside of New York or Los Angeles so horror fans like myself are forced to wait until they’re released on DVD to see them. It can take years for some of these movies to find an appreciative audience and in today’s fast-paced world they all too often get overshadowed by lesser films with larger advertising budgets. A great example of this ongoing problem is the popular TWILIGHT franchise, which has gotten an unprecedented amount of press here in the US while the most interesting and innovative vampire films are being made outside the country and include the highly acclaimed Swedish production LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008) as well as Chan-wook Park’s Korean horror opus THIRST (2009) and Claire Denis’ French thriller TROUBLE EVERY DAY (2001).
Another great vampire film that has largely gone unnoticed is STRIGOI (2009). STRIGOI was the brainchild of Faye Jackson, a British filmmaker married to a Romanian film producer, and although the movie was featured at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival and walked away with the Vision Award for best independent film, it didn’t find its way onto DVD until 2011 and has received very little press in the US. I finally caught up with STRIGOI this week after discovering it streaming on Netflix and was immediately inspired to jot down a few thoughts about this very funny, surprisingly original and strangely touching vampire film.
STRIGOI tells the story of Vlad Cozma (Catalin Paraschiv), a lanky young Romanian who returns home to his small village after dropping out of medical school and working at a fast-food restaurant in Italy for a brief time. His return is marked by a series of strange events that eventually lead him to discover that his boyhood home is being overrun by vampire-like creatures known as strigoi who leave large pustule type bites on their victims. These undead creatures are also linked to various property disputes that have plagued the village since the communist takeover of the country during WW2 and the government’s eventual collapse in 1989.
The film’s focus on Eastern European politics and social concerns will probably confuse a lot of indifferent viewers but I personally found the film’s unique approach absolutely fascinating and that has a lot to do with the fact that I’m married to an American-Latvian man and I’m generally interested in European history. Like Romania, Latvia suffered greatly under communist rule and issues of land ownership are commonplace among countries that were occupied by Stalin’s government. It’s not uncommon to hear Latvians venomously discussing communists much like the Romanians do in STRIGOI so it was refreshing to see these conflicts dealt with in such a funny and thoughtful way but the film is also concerned with universal truths that we all struggle with.
In STRIGOI, Vlad comes to epitomize the well-worn phrase, “You can’t go home again” as he tries to make sense of the people and places he left behind. Like many of today’s youth, he’s forced to return home due to his inability to find fulfilling work and lack of financial stability in our increasingly unstable capitalist economy but Vlad also lacks personal motivation. His family and fellow villagers constantly remind him that he’s seen as a failure or as they like to phrase it, “a pussy,” which is a crude way of questioning his masculinity due to his inability to become a doctor because his constitution is delicate. Vlad simply can’t stand the sight of dead bodies.
At the same time Vlad is generally disgusted with the world and the corruption, poverty and outdated beliefs he’s forced to confront. As director and writer Faye Jackson explained in an interview, the vampires or strigoi in her film represent the people you can never get rid of, even after they’re dead. These monsters are Vlad’s family members and friends and they haunt and torment him in unexpected ways. The film generates its gentle scares from Vlad’s general disappointment at the hand he’s been dealt in life so don’t expect too many jump out of your seat moments in STRIGOI. This is a dark horror comedy with a big heart, much like Guillermo del Toro’s CRONOS (1993), and its best moments are often the amusing and thoughtful conversations Vlad shares with his grandfather (Nicolae Cozma) and his female neighbor (Camelia Maxim).
Faye Jackson spent a lot of time in Romania (aka Dracula country) with her husband’s family before making the movie and STRIGOI benefits from her well-defined vision and personal insight. It was shot by cinematographer Kathinka Minthe and I have to mention how well these two women worked together. STRIGOI is a great looking little movie that manages to beautifully evoke the rural image of a small Eastern European village and its inhabitants. The film also benefits from a terrific cast of Romanian actors that had to speak English in the film because Jackson’s limited understanding of the Romanian language forced her to write the script in her native tongue. Last but not least, STROGOI also has a terrific soundtrack that includes songs by the amazing American band Beirut as well as traditional Romanian music performed by Zoltan and his Gypsy Ensemble.
The movie’s languid pacing, black humor, concern with Eastern European politics and lack of gore won’t appeal to everyone. But discriminating horror fans looking for something truly unique to watch might find the film as rewarding as I did. This underseen low-budget independent gem is currently streaming on Amazon and was released on DVD by Breaking Glass Pictures/Vicious Circle Films.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published at TCM.com in 2012