British writer-director (and editor) Faye Jackson takes the vampire mythos all the way back to its Romanian folkloric roots for her debut feature-length offering “Strigoi”, and comes up trumps with this truly compelling, peat-black slice of rural comedy-horror that has a unique and quirky tone all of its own. Based on this, and her disturbing medical horror short “Lump”, which Bounty Films have thoughtfully seen fit to include as an extra on their new UK DVD release, Jackson emerges as a potentially promising new voice in British horror if she elects to continue in the genre. She seems to have a penchant for taking the hoarier, outmoded tropes of such films and re-minting them in a fresh, new ideas-based context where they unexpectedly flourish in their unfamiliar surroundings; we need to keep an eye out for her future work – on this showing, it promises great things indeed.
A British film through and through though it may be, “Strigoi” is steeped in the character and heritage of traditional Romanian funerary practices and the varied rural superstitions which often informed them. Exactly the same traditions that Bram Stoker drew on when he created his undying legend, Dracula -- whose real-life counterpart, after all, came from this neck of the woods to begin with. It turns out that the ancient legends and folklore that Stoker so successfully adapted for his own particular fictional needs, are a mixed bag of strange and rather obscure offbeat beliefs which Jackson became aware of while looking into the legend of Dracula on a research trip in her Romanian husband’s homeland. The Strigoi is a type of blood-drinking vampire which can exist in both living and dead versions; stories and legends surrounding it abound in the form of odd tales along the lines of one that, for instance, tells of a mourning family that attends the funeral of a recently deceased relative, returning home only to find the dead person they’d just seen put in the ground is back … sitting in the kitchen eating their dinner! Someone who dies believing a wrong has been done them during life may return for revenge, unless the body is watched over for three days and three nights. The Wikipedia page on Strigoi even cites dying unmarried as a reason for coming back again in undead form; the beliefs about such creatures seem to be wide-ranging and varied. In Jackson’s hands, this sort of potent, macabre material becomes a chance to allegorise the confusing proto-capitalist, post-communist world of today’s rural Romania -- in which the perpetually vexed question of ownership of the land remains rooted in a troubled history of contentious claims, and a bitterness which is inherent to the politics of the past in the region.
The film is grounded in this painful Romanian political reality but takes a wry, humorous approach to its subject. It opens with the community of the small rural village of Podoleni gathering at night on a hillside to witness the death of their corrupt local leader -- an ex-communist state official turned ruthless landowner -- as he is forced to take part, alongside his wife, in a small-scale re-enactment of the death of Nicolae Ceaușescu and the dictator’s own wife Elena. The violent event suddenly then turns into an all-night party in the overthrown leader’s ransacked mansion. We know we’re in for a slightly more quirky experience with Jackson’s film when the peasant women and ruddy-faced patriarchs of the village celebrate their freedom by doing the conga in slow motion through the rooms of the great house, to the sound of Norman Greenbaum’s Glam-era pop paean to eternal rest, Spirit in the Sky!
A failed medical student called Vlad Cozma (Catalin Paraschiv), who left the country for greater things but ended up serving behind the counter in a Kentucky fried chicken outlet in Italy, returns with an air of defeat hanging heavy over him to his place of birth, where he now stays with his elderly, senile grandfather (Rudi Rosenfeld) in the untidy family home. The village still seems almost medieval in appearance, apart from the preponderance of telegraph wires streaking the skyline and the sound of express trains rumbling across the tracks cutting through its rural hinterlands. It isn’t long before Vlad finds that the people of the community that he grew up in are now behaving most peculiarly. Grandfather Nicolae rails equally against communist land stealers and gypsies plotting to steal his chickens, while Stefan the mayor (Zane Jarco), Tudor the local Orthodox priest (Dan Popa), and many of Vlad’s other childhood acquaintances appear to be holding a three day party/mourning vigil over the corpse of a local drunk (Nicolae Stanila) as he lies stiffly in his open coffin.
The old man seems clearly to have died in dubious circumstances: there is discernible bruising around his neck, and Vlad’s medical training makes it obvious to him that it occurred before the old man died and was probably the cause. One of Vlad’s closest friends before he left the village was the local policeman, Oday (Vlad Jipa), but even he seems completely uninterested in uncovering the truth. An increasingly suspicious Vlad becomes convinced that the entire community is involved in some kind of conspiracy. He visits the home of the local leader, Constantin Tirescu (Constantin Barbulescu) and his wife, but finds them behaving in a very strange fashion indeed – skulking about in the dark inside their large empty house, looking bloated and zombie-like and generally rather the worse for wear. When he tells the local officials of his visit to the Tirescu home, they become very agitated indeed and refuse to believe he could have possibly spoken to Constantin as he claims. Vlad’s continued probing later appears to uncover a plot to steal the dead man’s land, but why is everyone going along with the cover-up? What is the nature of the strange rash which seems to be spreading through the community? And why is Ileana Tirescu visiting the home of the dead man’s relatives each night to greedily eat the entire contents of their fridge?!
Jackson, her director of photography Kathinka Minthe and production designer Grigore Puscariu have come up with a brooding, rustic-brown aesthetic that makes some wonderfully atmospheric use of the vast fields of broken down farming estates and the mouldering scrubland anchored beneath greying cloud-scudded skies, which appear to define the look of the landscape. The plot’s artful mix of small-time paranoid conspiracy plot and deadpan, surrealistic supernatural hijinks lends the film something of the character of an early Polanski film, along the lines of his Polish-made shorts or of “Cul-de-sac”. Paraschiv leads a cast of Romanian actors who speak accented English throughout the film rather than their own tongue (subtitles are available, but it is easy to understand them) and makes for a likable protagonist caught up in a situation which is as mystifying to him as it is to the audience. This is partly a film about someone who has attempted to escape the restrictions of what seemed a moribund way of life mired in outdated traditions, but finds he is unable to adapt to the spreading rapacity he finds in the world at large beyond the borders of his small village.
The film at first seems to be playing on this theme of the returning son who discovers he’s now an outsider in his own homeland; he doesn’t really identify with the consumer based greed he sees in the customers who greedily guzzle down processed chicken pieces at the fried chicken outlet he worked at during his stay in Italy, but neither does he belong anymore to the world of superstition his childhood acquaintances seem to inhabit. He’s shocked to see his former pals hunched over the corpse of old Florin the drunk, but the mayor responds to his incredulity at the thought that they might be prepared to carry out a three-day vigil intended to thwart the possibility of the old man returning to life as a Strigoi, by saying: ‘we’re marking the passing of his life and illuminating his journey to heaven … what are you going to do when we die? Sell us on eBay?’ Of course the vigil is also an excuse for another local custom: consuming large quantities of alcohol.
As the complicated plot about land ownership proceeds and every pillar of the community (the politicians, the religious figures, the police) all look to be deeply embroiled in some shady goings on, the film becomes more an allegory about how the country has failed to escape the legacy of its past, post-revolution, and is merely repeating many of its former injustices under a different name. You can kill a tyrant as a symbolic gesture, but that tyrant continues to live on if the underlying rot in the society remains. The film references how communists originally commandeered the land when the country became part of the Soviet Union after the Second World War, so that former landowners then found themselves being forced to work on what they still considered to be their own property. When the Soviet empire collapsed, and the land became available again, who owned what became a hotly contested issue and former Communist Party officials soon became rich proto-capitalists, able to buy up vast swathes of the land they used to oversee under the Soviet system, but now acting as business-based tyrants rather than political ones. Either way, old resentments remained.
Constantin Tirescu is just one such hated oligarchical ex-communist business tycoon and village elder. The local political class, the religious order and the police try to dispose of him with the blessing of the rest of the community, but he won’t stay buried and still returns to plague them as a bloated, putrefying Strigoi -- while his undead wife literally eats them out of house and home. Jackson is able to use the somewhat porous rules that govern exactly how a Strigoi is supposed to behave and why it manifests itself in the first place, to suggest a community fragmenting under the burden of trying to escape its past crimes. An outbreak of ugly, buboes-like sores which affect more and more of the villagers throughout the film coincides with the return of Constantin in undead form, and it soon becomes hard to tell who is Strigoi and who isn’t, since the creatures can exist in a living form as well as an living dead one. Jackson treats the process as a transmittable plague that might infect anybody. By the film tacitly associating the curse of Strigoi with capitalist greed, the new leaders of the community are made to look vulnerable to the spreading plague as they themselves now begin to haggle over land deeds. The image of an undead Ileana Tirescu guzzling down every morsel of food she can lay her hands on, only turning on the owner, Mara Tomsa (Camelia Maxim), for her blood when Mara has no more victuals left to feed the monster with, has clear parallels with Vlad’s flashback of watching western customers shovelling greasy chicken down their throats in Italy. So has Vlad’s brush with western European consumer greed infected him with the curse of the Strigoi as well?
Those viewers expecting a traditional vampire flick will not find much here that feels familiar. The Strigoi don’t have any special powers and don’t really behave all that differently to their former living selves; their greed merely now takes the form of a literal kind of obsession for food or, in the case of Constantin, a hankering to take back the land which the community officials have appropriated after his execution. Only when they can’t get what they desire do the Strigoi turn to literally bleeding their victims dry rather than continuing to do so figuratively. The film is completely devoid of any committed attempts to scare the viewer, although there is a little gore present duirng a number of scenes, since destroying a Strigoi requires the heart to be cut out of it while it sleeps, and for the organ then to be burned up in flames. Mostly Jackson affects a quiet, evenly-paced tone underscored with witty humour and semi comic-surreal imagery (one scene in which a man wakes from a nightmare to find one of his closest relatives greedily supping blood from his sores is typical of the half comical, half haunting imagery the film excels in). The whole film has a stoic allegorical air about it, playing rather more like a quirky Kafkaesque fable than a traditional horror film. This is by no means a criticism though: let’s face it, there are more than enough traditional vampire-centred films, TV series and books to be going along with for now, and it makes a nice change to be presented with a completely original approach to the subject for a change.
Bounty Films present the film in a pleasing 1.85:1 transfer with a nice Dolby Digital 5.1 surround audio track and the theatrical trailer as an extra. The only other extra is a bit of a corker: an eleven minute short film called “Lump” which sees Faye Jackson taking her Polanskiesque knack for paranoid horror into much darker toned territory in a hospital drama which sees Lara Belmont as a troubled young woman who has to undergo repeated surgery in order to have a recurring breast lump removed. But each time it comes back almost immediately -- although smiling doctors and nurses continue to assure her the lumps are entirely benign. This is a dark, ambiguous and haunting tale touching on medical malpractice, isolation and the impersonal bureaucracy of modern healing practices which makes an excellent second feature to accompany the lighter touch of the director’s feature debut. A warmly recommended purchase.