Strigoi (2009) – By Cary Conley

Like many horror fans, I also like vampire films. But lately, with the exception of a certain Nordic vampire movie, it seems the vampire has been all played out on the big screen. Enter Faye Jackson, the writer and director of Strigoi, who has managed to create an original, fresh take on the vampire myth.

Vlad is a med-school dropout forced to return to his quaint eastern European village after being too squeamish to complete his studies. Returning to his Romanian village from the more cosmopolitan western European Italy, he is thrust into a confusing mix between old-school European customs and a burgeoning youth movement. His village, most likely around for centuries, has survived two world wars, the Nazi occupation, and Communist Russia. The old folks have become jaded by change, and for good reason. Everything bad is blamed on Communism or gypsies. But now there is a quieter Turkish invasion as the Turks move in to purchase Romanian land in and around Vlad’s village (the protagonist’s name Vlad and the underlying current of resentment between the Romanians and the Turks will not be lost on history buffs or vampire enthusiasts).

Vlad enters a small store where the village elders are sitting watch over a corpse. This is odd as Vlad knows that the dead man was not particularly well-liked by anyone in the village, so he can’t figure out why the corpse is being treated so respectfully. As he leans in to get a better look, he notices bruising around the corpse’s neck; his medical knowledge kicks in and he realizes that something is amiss. It doesn’t help that the village elders are so coy about the entire situation. Gradually, Vlad realizes that the whole village has a secret they are dealing with, but Vlad has difficulty coming to terms with his more worldly opinions versus what he thinks may be happening in his village. Eventually Vlad may have to face the fact that strigoi not only exist but are in his town.

While strigoi is the Romanian equivalent to the English word “vampire”, the Romanians have a unique take on true meaning of a vampire. One can turn into strigoi if bitten, but others can have “strigoi blood” and basically be born a vampire. And while English concept of a vampire is of an undead creature with no true feelings that is just after blood, Romanians believe that people who have been wronged in life can return as strigoi to seek revenge on the people who them. The strigoi infestation in this particular village began when the most powerful man in the village, a gangster of sorts who was selling off all the land to the Turk, was murdered along with his wife. Now the two have returned to seek revenge on the village and to complete the exchange of land that was unable to be completed during life.

Strigoi is a slyly witty, mature fairy tale with plenty of black humor for everyone. Not only does director Jackson add her own fresh take on vampire lore, but she also deals with other issues such as the juxtaposition of the youth movement with the old-school European view, the disenfranchisement of young Europeans trying to forge their own lifestyles in a very traditional society, the undercurrent of victimization many eastern Europeans still feel after WWII and the Communist occupation and the ancient hatred still evident between different cultures and religions such as the typical mistrust of gypsies as well as the conflict between Muslim Turks and Christian Europe. Some of these differences are made even more evident in, for instance, the use of music. The film begins with the classic rock grooves of Norman Greenbaum’s 1969 “Spirit in the Sky” before moving towards a more traditional, if not totally authentic, European feel to the music. The score ranges from cute, tinkling sounds during some of the more comedic scenes to songs with a very traditional European flavor, but always the score is well-balanced and suits the scenes perfectly.

Jackson and cinematographer Kathinka Minthe have also created a beautiful-looking film. The colors are predominantly dark such as blue and gray, which give the film the feel of both medieval Europe (where these ancient myths developed) but also may subconsciously represent the drabness of Communist Europe westerners typically envision. The scenery is beautiful in an eerie way and contributes to the overall oppressive atmosphere of the film.

But Strigoi is not meant to be a completely depressing picture; Jackson has also infused the film with some dark humor and there are scenes and dialogue that almost made me laugh out loud. For instance, Vlad’s mother beseeching him to “Be a good boy and go cut out his heart and burn it.” In another addition to vampire lore, while Strigoi are always hungry, they can be held at bay by feeding them whatever food you have in the house. But woe be unto the unfortunate person that runs out of food before the cock crows as they may well find themself the dessert for this Satanic dinner. This particular piece of lore is used for several comedic and telling scenes such as when the evil strigoi Constantin confronts Vlad. Not getting what he came for, Constantin very peevishly grabs a large jar of pickles off the table and cradles them in his arms as if to say, “The least you can do is supply me with food if I can’t have what I really want.” Vlad exclaims to his grandfather, “Are you just going to let him take the pickles?!” In another scene, Vlad awakens to his grandfather sucking the blood from Vlad’s leg. Vlad jumps up and again exclaims to his grandfather, “Stop sucking my blood!” to which his grandfather retorts, “It is MY blood.” While this scene supplies some humor, it also again addresses the generation gap between old and young: Vlad thinks of the village as his, but doesn’t stop to think that the older generation hasn’t yet let loose of their convictions or their sense of ownership.

For fans of horror itching to see a new and original twist to an old story, Strigoi might just fit that bill. Unfortunately, the film isn’t perfect. For one, I felt it ran a bit too long. At nearly two hours, there are parts of the film that seem to lag, and a few trims might help keep the audience’s attention. The thick accents used were also problematic for me as it was sometimes very difficult to understand the dialogue, even though the actors were speaking English. For accents this thick, I would have preferred the choice of subtitles to help me understand all of the dialogue. At times I lost my way in the film and being able to read subtitles might have helped my confusion. Of course, this was only a screener, so I hope Breaking Glass Pictures will add subtitle options to the finished DVD.

Overall, I enjoyed Strigoi. I felt it was a smart, humorous and fresh take on some very old material. If you like your horror mixed with some humor and intelligence, then try Strigoi. The film is being released by Vicious Circle Films, an imprint of Breaking Glass Pictures, and more information can be found at http://www.breakingglasspictures.com.