Written and Directed by: Faye Jackson
Starring: Constantin Barbulescu, Camelia Maxim and Catalin Paraschiv
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“You are a good boy, Vlad. Cut out his heart.”
If you know your Romanian (and I clearly don’t since I had to look this up), you know that “strigoi” can just be a fancy word for “vampire.” So, yeah, Strigoi is yet another vampire movie--sort of. This one takes us all the way back to where the myth purportedly got started: Eastern Europe, specifically Romania. Vampires have basically been dropped into every corner of the world during the past century, but they always feel right at home in places like Romania, Transylvania, and various other places whose names end in “-ia.” Strigoi is no exception; it’s off-kilter and not at all adherent to the typical Western co-option of the vampire legend, meaning the undead bloodsuckers haven’t felt this fresh in a while.
When Vlad (Catalin Paraschiv) returns to his remote village home after a sabbatical in Italy, he learns that a local drunk ne’er-do-well has passed away. As is custom, a group of men stand watch over his body for a few days and nights to ensure safe passage to the afterlife; Vlad gets a little curious, however, when it seems obvious that the man died a violent death that’s being covered up. He begins to investigate and stumbles upon an entire conspiracy that involves land ownership, post-Communism anxieties, and…the undead?!
This rough and tumble British production is quite bizarre; it’s pretty much all about death, but it’s not really morbid. Its opening credits are accompanied by an ironic use of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” which seemingly signifies an irreverent romp. However, Strigoi tends to stay low key after this, focusing on some offbeat interactions between Vlad and the townspeople. A surprisingly interesting bunch to hang out with, they include his grandfather (who is still wary of gypsies and Communists), and the group of men charged with the task of overlooking the corpse in question. These guys make no qualms about why they’re doing this--sure, it’s tradition, but it’s also an excuse to drink and be merry. A sort of cheekiness emerges very quickly, as the film is loaded with morbid humor that sort of recalls Cemetery Man (though it leaves behind that film’s sense of lament).
Things aren’t all fun and games, though, as Vlad does dig into a bleak plot involving murder and revenge. When the action really gets going (and it does take a little while), Strigoi becomes an unusual police procedural film; the conspiracy that gets dug up is a sort of dense one, and I think the film loses its way a bit when it gets bogged down by all the land-grabbing details. And somewhere along the way, a ravenous undead lady shows up at Vlad’s mom’s house and starts devouring all her food. It’s a little unfocused for a while, but the cast eventually pulls it through--Paraschiv is an especially capable lead. He’s the typical (possibly) sane man in an insane world; he doesn’t believe in the ridiculous claims of the undead and fancies himself somehow above his heritage. Vlad is kind of flunkie too, as he had to drop out of medical school for being too squeamish, and he still has nightmares about not only that experience, but also the menial fast food job he once suffered.
He eventually has a rather satisfying arc that actually carries an entire country’s struggle on its back. The film’s setting is obviously in the shadow of Communism, which dominated the land only 20 years ago; the angst and remnants of course remain. Here, they physically reveal themselves in the local land baron who once ruled with an iron fist; he not so subtly wears red and also happens to be the film’s central vampiric menace. He’s a bloodsucker who has also sucked the soul of a nation, which renders the film an allegorical struggle for post-Communist identity; the townspeople too have become bloodthirsty land-grabbers who have been forced to adjust to the frenzied capitalist system (ostensibly, they’ve been forced to take back land that was already theirs). In this respect, Strigoi is actually quite brilliant, as it sincerely examines themes of nationality, traditions, and generation gaps.
Something wholly triumphant eventually emerges because we realize these people (who are somehow quite affable despite their weirdness) are burying more than vampires. Instead, they’re locking away painful memories and exorcising some very spiritual demons on their way to forging some sense of who they are in the 21st century. Though it could possibly trim some fat on its narrative, Strigoi gives you more to chew on than the usual vampire flick; it’s quite thoughtful and carries some strong production values. Bumping into a unique take on vampires is probably less commonplace than actually running into a real bloodsucker at this point, so that’s high praise. When Breaking Glass Pictures brings it to DVD on August 2nd, definitely check it out; it’s quite possibly the best offering I’ve seen from them yet. Possessing an effective blend of poignancy, quirky humor, and genuine concern for human conditions, Strigoi is unlike any vampire tale you've seen or heard lately. Buy it!
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