TADFF 09: STRIGOI Review
With all the contortions and mutations that the vampire movie has taken in the past 75 (heck, the past 2) years, it is quite refreshing to see that there remains interesting potential in the genre. Take for instance, Faye Jackson's debut feature, Strigoi, which trumps Bram Stoker in going rigorously back to the roots of the mythology in Romanian folklore, pulls things forward through both World Wars and culminates in a failed medical doctor sending a picture (via blackberry) of the townsfolk dealing with the undead at the local catholic church. Bring Backup.
The very indie British filmmakers, obviously in love with the local terrain and history, bring a maturity to the genre (along for the ride: handsome cinematography) that is most definitely lacking in the modern trend of nosferatu sightings (with the obvious exception one one Swedish entry). Where Trueblood and Twilight pander mightily to their audiences, offering lurid cheap thrills and plots that wash down like fizz-less soda pop, Strigoi challenges and stretches audience expectation of the bloodsucker with an ambitiously adult story of land ownership, tradition, history and a people dealing with a generational gap that has its youth go off to the rest of Europe to find their place in the world. Oh, and it is darkly funny too, with a delightfully morbid use of Norman Greenbaum's 'Spirit in the Sky' and a mothers plea to her son to "Be a good boy, go cut out his heart."
Vlad, a handsome yet depressed prodigal son, is returning home to his village in Romania after a stretch in Italy which his degree in medicine only landed him a job in a fast-food chicken joint. Finding western European culture a place to visit, but not quite the easy living expected from higher education, he is back to find his grounding. But he is coming back to a real mess. During the time he was gone, the village seems to have decided to off the local land owner (with the help of the resident young catholic priest no less) and redistribute a little wealth. Before you can say Wickerman (or "for the greater good") the older townsfolk have steeped themselves in consumer appliances and fancy clothes of their previous mayor. Vlad, being the smart fellow he is, immediately picks up on this, but a visit to the wealthy administrator (who is looking more than a little red-faced and sickly) results in confusion. Trying to make further sense of events with the villagers, who, on one hand are quite surprise to find out Vlad was talking with their recent murder victim, and on the other hand, are busy with their own vigilance of a corpse of codger, who, it bears mentioning, appears to have been recently strangled (and scheduled to be put into the ground with no death certificate). Vlad's own kins secretive behavior and casual indifference only brings up more questions. The plot is a labyrinth, and the local cop, who appears to have his own undead issues is not helping. Along the way, Vlad picks up a lot of history, tradition (and many plates of food and dessert) and vampire stories from his mother, who on the side is dealing with the mayors wife, also redfaced and sickly. Ms. Mayor seems to have an appetite large enough to eat all the food prepped for the funeral, as well as munching on a few live chickens out in the back yard. Mom takes things all in stride, but after all, that is what moms do. Vlad may be the audience stand in, the voice of reason, but he is still cannot find his cigarettes and has enough personal and family issues to stuff the plot even further.
Played low-key and charming, the highest compliment one could pay to Strigoi is its full blown original metaphor for the Vampire. It mulls over mythology and traditional family values in Romania as the country wrestles with 20th century ghosts and modern links to the European Union. The directors agenda is to endear and contemplate, not strike fear. There is none of this Anne Rice romanticism of the undead; here they are ugly and vulgar and feeding is clumsy and incestuous (A grandfather to grandson exchange upon a late night feeding of his own spawn: "It was my blood first"). And all of this plays out under the spectre of 20th century Romania changing hands between Germany and Russia; at the hands of usurpers, the locals are left to suffer indignities on their own soil, even as they take justices into their own hands.
Finding an open-minded, thoughtful audience that can digest Strigoi is sure to be an interesting challenge for distribution. I hope smart moviegoers take a chance on it. The humour and offbeat pacing is more akin to upscale arthouse cinema (The Icelandic black comedies of Baltasar Kormákur spring to mind) than down and dirty genre offerings, but it is not afraid to break out an autopsy, vivisection or animal beheading if it will drive home a point. Faye Jackson's slice of Romanian village life is a both a handsome curio and a modern step forward from the stake that Let The Right One In drove into the heart of the genre last year.