THE VOURDALAK – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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While having broadly garnered the reputation as the “other” Tolstoy – cast as he so often is in the shadow of the Nobel Prize winning Leo Tolstoy of Anna Karenina (1878) and War and Peace (1869) fame – for horror fiends alone Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy regardless has earned a significant place in the genre’s history. Aside from an impressive slew of poems and plays, he authored two significant gothic novellas, The Family of the Vourdalak (1839) and The Vampire (1841), both of which notably predate Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) by many decades. In his recent adaptation of the former, french filmmaker Adrien Beau takes Tolstoy’s famous tale about the Slavic folkloric figure of the wurdulac and brings it to life.

Despite its impressive literary heritage, Tolstoy’s telling of his vourdalak tale has had limited attention when it comes to film adaptation, with notable previous encounters including Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963) and Giorgio Ferroni’s The Night of the Devils (1972). But with its world premiere at the 2023 Venice Film Festival, Beau’s The Vourdalak has already garnered serious attention.

The film follows the Marquise d’Urfe (Kacey Mottet Klein), an emissary of the King of France, who is stranded somewhere in eastern Europe when he is robbed and left for dead. Stumbling across a strange family suffering from the fallout of war with Turkey, despite their denial the Marquis witnesses first hand as he becomes a vourdalak – a strange, vampire-like creature who feeds off and infects his loved ones – a malady that rapidly spreads throughout the family. Shocked by the truth of what is happening to his host family and increasingly romantically drawn to the adult daughter Sdenka (Ariane Labed), the Marquis is confronted with the reality of his own mortality, something his privileged life in France had until then seemingly protected him from.

Told with a fairytale frankness, Beau situates his vision of Tolstoy’s story in a world of historical fantasy with a kind of earnestness and lack of irony that is immediately refreshing. He takes his characters and their plight seriously which grants the film a rich sense of emotional immersiveness and a kind of sincerity that is never pompous or cloying.

Most immediate, however, is how he brings the figure of the initial voudalak to life; cleverly employing puppetry instead of computer generated imagery, which grants the movie something of the feeling of watching a movie much older than it actually is, subtly triggering memories of our own experiences of watching fairy tale movies as children. A dark, delicious fairytale fantasy brought to life with profound emotional integrity, The Vourdalak breathes new life into the far-too-often pedestrian vampire movie.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This review was originally published on when The Vourdalak premiered at SITGES in October 2023.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).