Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Strigoi

Strigoi
Directed by: Faye Jackson
UK, 2009
Horror/Drama/Comedy, 105min
Distributed by: Njuta Films

In September I participated in a day of lectures focusing on the horror genre arranged by Lund Film Academy. As constructinghorror.com my mate and I where there to talk on horror storytelling, others on writing, some on production etc. The day ended with a debate panel featuring Jake West, Benjamin Hessler and Faye Jackson amongst others. A debate, something that the Swedes have quite a fetish for, and the topic under discussion was Gender in Horror Cinema! It sounded like an interesting discussion, but another thing that Swedes are obsessed with is genus studies. So the question was actually: is there a difference between what scares men and what scares women in horror? Something of a strange question if you ask me, as the majority of fears are primal and programmed since the dawn of time.

But the thing that stuck me, despite the panel of directors, screenwriters and academics who where sat in front of me was that they where missing an obvious angle that should have been on review more than what scares who.

One thing that I’ve noticed whilst watching loads of generic horror these past six months whilst writing that monthly column for Cinema magazine is that a lot of the really good, innovative and interesting titles have been movies directed by women! If you were keeping notes, I’d definitely say keep your eyes open for stuff like Caroline & Éric du Potet’s Dans ton sommeil (In Their Sleep) 2010, Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s After.Life 2009, Kerry Anne Mullaney’s The Dead Outside 2008 and Faye Jackson’s Strigoi, all movies written and directed by women, and movies that are unlike the most other movies out there the last few years.
The denominator for all these movies is that they all walk a slow paced shuffle though their narratives. Slowly building atmosphere, posing questions and staying safely in the psychological sphere of the genre rather that the traditional jump scare shock flicks that tend to bore the pants of me in the long run. These are some great movies that build a really tense and creepy atmosphere, steer off the path of the generic and into an innovative realm.

Writer, director and editor Faye Jackson’s second feature film, Strigoi, is a weird and beautiful little movie that perhaps works better as a horror film with a dark comedic tone more than a straight forward horror flick, because it does invite it’s audiences to share a few laughs along the way.

Strigoi tells the tale of Vlad [Catalin Paraschiv] who returns to his home village after failing medical school in the big city. Upon his return he starts to notice that things aren’t quite how they used to be in the old village. On the eve of his return the villagers have finally taken upon themselves to put an end to the local moneybag and somewhat sardonic Mayor Constantin Tirescu [Constantin Barbulescu], although that was just the start of their troubles. Whilst Vlad starts looking into the reason why men of the village are mourning the village bum, he finds that things go deeper than he could ever have expected. Together with his friend, village police officer Octav, [Vlad Jipa] Vlad starts to look into the reason why everyone is mourning the Florin, and the only person who is giving him answers is Mayor Tirescu…

Yes it’s a vampire story with it’s roots in Romanian folklore and instead of bringing the threat to our modernised high-tech city world, Jackson set’s her story in the back end of nowhere in contemporary Romania. Excellent. It’s an illustrious choice, because the setting and the almost all Romanian cast and crew, are brilliant. The movie holds something of a Romanian history parallel as the executions of the landowners/Mayor family at the start obviously leads one to think of Ceausescu and the freedom that followed the revolution. In Strigoi it’s a freedom celebrated by looting the Tirescu estate to the sounds of Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky.

But that loot is something of a homing beacon as the resurrected Tirescu’s go on a feeding rampage in the homes of villagers who stole from their mansion. Like when Ileana Tirescu [Roxana Guttman] enters the home of Vlad’s neighbour Mara [Camelia Maxim who is simply adorable as a frightened middle aged woman feeding strigoi and fighting her own fears here] and eats everything she can lay her hands on – apart from the cake Mara has baked for Vlad which she hides on the top shelf out of sight. Beautiful small details, that stand out and give layers and emotions to its characters.

Another thing that really fascinated me is that there is no real classic protagonists and antagonists in the piece. There are no polarised counterparts to be found anywhere, they are all more or less the same kind of personas which is very fascinating, because Jackson still get’s it to work and the mystery in front of Vlad, becomes just as much our task too.

Vlad Cozma is a great character. There’s a complex dimension to him. He was a medical student, but couldn’t face the actual task of going through with an educational autopsy. A failure that saw him flunking class and taking a job at a fast food restaurant instead. So much for the great plan to get out of the tiny village and make a better life, right? And it’s right back to crappy inbred village life that he is hurled when he runs out of funding and has to come crawling back to rural life – where they all still refer to him as the doctor, which is also what has him curious to the death of Florin as there are strange “strangulation like marks” on his neck. So Vlad is the sceptic of the piece and stays so for quite some time. It’s though his encounters with villagers like the neighbour Mara, his grandfather Nicaolae [Rudi Rosenfeld] his mate Octav and the strigoi, which he converses with, completely unaware of their being – see a sceptic can’t see the truth. Until he faces his fears, overcomes his squeamishness and has to ask the question who the real strigoi is. He’s a likeable character even though he may not have much at stake. But he’s concerned and wants’ to put wrongs right, which make us empathise with him. The running joke that Vald is too much of a coward also works to help us like him. Instead of lashing out, Vlad is concerned about the reactions his actions will give and walks gently through the narrative. There’s no clumsy or shit-kicking action hero here only a man of reason and a very real man indeed. A believable one, just like I need them to be for me to swept away by the magic of movie making.

Strigoi just goes to show that there still are some interesting ways to tackle the old vampire folk lore besides sticking them in teenage suburbia and having them fall “innocently” in love or hang out at loud techno clubs wearing rubber bondage suites and then chucking countless litres of fake blood at them… here’s an intelligent, human and dark take on bloodlines, vampire curses and capitalistic greed.

Strigoi takes an approach that is closer to that original Bram Stoker source and locates the story back to the rural Romanian landscapes. There are some hilarious moments that mock vampire convention, but at the same time here’s a fantastic naïveté amongst the villagers who all are believers. They grew up in the shadow of the strigoi so obviously they are afraid of the threat it poses.

Cinematography looks great, the location really adds to the atmosphere and there’s a great use of traditional Romanian music on the soundtrack – along with Spirit in the Sky and some fantastic tracks by Zack Condon’s euro folk inspired band Beirut.


Image:
Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1

Audio:
Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 English Dialogue. Swedish, Danish, Norwegian of Finnish subtitles optional.

Extras:
Included on this disc is Faye Jackson’s previous short movie Lump, A photo gallery and some trailers for other Njuta Films titles.

Now watch this trailer and tell me you don't want to see this great movie!

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