Plot: laborer falls in love with a beautiful girl who might, or might not, be human.
In the hallowed year of 1973 - a banner year for gothic, erotic, and vampire horror, if there ever was one – the European vampire film hit its apex. France, Spain, and Italy churned out some of their most memorable works. While the movement itself had started some three years earlier it didn’t reach critical mass until three years in. East-Europe was never very present in the popular conscious but their contributions to the development of horror aren’t any less important. Russia released the endlessly atmospheric special effects extravaganza Spirit Of Evil (1967), in Czechoslovakia (present-day Czech Republic) director Jaromil Jireš was the man behind the genre-bending coming of age fairytale Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), and in Serbia Đorđe Kadijević directed Лептирица (or The Butterfly, released in the English-speaking world as The She-Butterfly) produced by Radiotelevizija Beograd for TV Belgrade, which premiered on April 15, 1973 to wide consternation and shock. Teachers encouraged their students, young and old, to watch it. When it originally premiered in Skopje, Macedonia one person allegedly expired from sheer fright with all the expected controversy and moral outrage following. Pearl-clutchers of the day accused Kadijević of having made a “terrorist film” while literary critics claimed he had “desecrated” the classic After Ninety Years from Milovan Glišić on which it was based. Hardly the worst legacy for a little Balkan television movie about an hour long.
Đorđe Kadijević was born in 1933 and as a young boy he would see the horrors of World War II firsthand. He lost his father, his home and wandered around Serbia unhoused meeting Partisans and Chetniks along the way. He would grow up to be an art historian and art critic and his experiences during the Second World War would inform his screenwriting and most enduring cinematic works. Kadijević made comedies, period pieces, social realist dramas and everything in between. His film even catched the attention of Josip Broz Tito. He never had any real interest in horror as a genre as he deemed it too commercial. It’s not without a sense of irony then that it was in horror where he ended up contributing the most. He made the first Serbian horror film with The Gifts of My Cousin Mary (1969) and in the English-speaking world he’s forever associated with The Butterfly. Even if he took some artistic liberty with the Milovan Glišić story by changing the ending to something more ambiguous. For his television series Wolf Karadžić (1987-1988) he received the Order of the White Angel for honorably portraying the Orthodox Church during the Serbian Revolution of 1804-1812. Not only that the series was protected as European Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, on the suggestion of Umberto Eco. He also directed A Holy Place (1990), a Yugoslavian remake of Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov classic Soviet horror Spirit Of Evil (1963) that saw Branka Pujić taking over Natalya Varley’s iconic role as the titular witch. Kadijević was awarded the the Sretenje Order by the Republic of Serbia for his contributions to the development of Serbian art and culture. In 2016 he was the first laureate of the Bela Lugosi award at the Dead Lake festival in Palić, Subotica. Most recently, his work in cinema was celebrated at the Odraz Strava film festival on December 16-17 2022 at Hall of the Cultural Center of Belgrade.
After Ninety Years from Milovan Glišić tells the story of Sava Savanović, widely considered to be the first vampire in Serbian folklore. The legend of Savanović was probably inspired by the real-life case of peasant Petar Blagojević who died in 1725 and was believed to be responsible for nine mysterious deaths in the town of Kisiljevo. The crime was chronicled by Austrian administration official Imperial Provisor Ernst Frombald who witnessed his staking, took statements from villagers and called him Peter Plogojowitz in his reports. In Balkan folklore Blagojević was one of the earliest and most sensationalist examples of vampire hysteria. After Ninety Years was first published in 1880 preceding Bram Stoker’s Dracula (who’s main subject was inspired by 15th-century Wallachian voivode Vlad Drăculea or Vlad the Impaler) by some 17 years. Savanović also turned up in Fear and His Servant from Mirjana Novaković. Suffice to say, Sava Savanović is deeply engrained in Balkan popular culture. When The Butterfly premiered in 1973 it appeared more than ninety years after After Ninety Years first saw publication. Interestingly, in 2010 a feud of sorts broke out between two cities on opposing sides of the Povlen mountain when Zarožje and Valjevo claimed it as their own. Valjevo wanted to use it as their touristic mascot whereas Zarožje considered it theirs because of their connection to Milovan Glišić.
Serbia, the 19th century. Zarožje is a village on the slopes of the Povlen mountain in the valley of the Rogačica river in the municipality of Bajina Bašta. The village is set up as a zadruga (a family-based agricultural cooperative) where everybody lives in close harmony with nature and by the laws ordained by Protestant doctrine. The commune is governed by an assembly of elders and the local presbyterian priest (Tanasaije Uzunović). One morning the exsanguinated body of reclusive flour miller Vule (Toma Kuruzović) is found by geriatric peasant Ćebo (Bogoljub Petrović, as Boban Petrović). It is said that the mill is haunted by Sava Savanović and he kills whoever stays the night there. While Ćebo attributes the murder to the folkloric vampire village elder Villein (Branko Petković) fears that the unfortunate incident is the harbinger for an imminent famine. The entire town is beguiled by the ravishing beauty and elegance of ginger shepherdess Radojka (Mirjana Nikolić). Young farmhand Strahinja (Petar Božović) is madly in love with the ginger wonder (not surprising as her name means “well-disposed, happy, joyful, glad”) and in the meadows he declares his love for her. Strahinja wants them to be together and ask her hand in marriage.
Radojka has been raised by cranky landowner and farmer Živan (Slobodan Perović). Živan wants nothing more than Strahinja to leave Radojka alone – and he rebukes his request. The two young lovers are desperate to be together and if he can’t have Radojka than he’ll travel to Posavina to find employment and start anew. While the constantly drunk councilmen argue among each other about the veracity of the Savanović legend they all agree that first order of business is finding a new miller. They figure that installing Strahinja at the mill will solve two immediate problems: the famine will be staved off and they’ll retain Živan as an ally. They travel to the neighbouring village where they seek an audience with Mirjana Mirjanić who’s as deaf as a door post and half senile but also old enough to remember where Sava was buried. The councilmen dig up the grave and stake the contents of the coffin. Strahinja survives his night at the mill and is deemed the savior of the village. The villagers celebrate by throwing a rescue party to steal Radojka from Živan’s farm and prepare the couple’s wedding. That night Strahinja sneaks into Radojka’s dwelling and when he undresses her he comes to a deeply shocking discovery about the girl’s real parentage.
If anything The Butterfly made a star out of Mirjana Nikolić as well as its iconic watermill. Mirjana Nikolić had debuted in Whole Life Within A Year (1967) and was a rising star due to her role in the romantic comedy Father by Force (1969). While she had worked with Đorđe Kadijević the year before on the historic drama The Colonel’s Wife (1972) history would remember The Butterfly as her breakout role to an international career. That international career didn’t seem to extend beyond the British co-produced wartime drama England Made Me (1973) from the 1953 Graham Greene novel of the same name. For the most of her career Nikolić would remain in Serbia. Filming for The Butterfly happened on location in the village of Zelinje (in the province of Zvornik, in present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina) and the watermill (“the mill of fear” the locals affectionately call it, supposedly) remains at its original location some 3 km (1.9 mi) from the Bajina Bašta-Valjevo road in the valley of the Rogačica river. It has since become something of a tourist attraction. The mill collapsed in 2012, but was reconstructed by December 2018. Four years later, in December 2022, it was completely renovated and while its doors remain open, it isn’t presently operational. No doubt The Butterfly brought in decades’ worth of tourism to Zelinje and Serbia.
East-European horror has an atmosphere that really can’t be felt anywhere else. It’s rustic, glacially paced and has the pastoral environs and that thick dream atmosphere usually associated with France, it’s also very primal in the way Spanish horror is, and strangely religious like something you’d expect out of Latin America. Spirit Of Evil (1967), Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), and this are some prime examples of the form. The Butterfly is historic for being one of the finest vampire horror films to come from the former Yugoslavia. It’s historical importance and cultural significance can’t possibly be understated. Moreso, in 2019 Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) digitally restored and remastered it premiering (whether this was on their main channel RTS1 or their more cultural/educational RTS2 is unclear) it for an entire new generation. On a sidenote, it’s also interesting is that it arrived in 1973, the absolute nexus of gothic horror in Europe. For most Western viewers it wouldn’t be until Polish gothic The Wolf (1983) before East-Europe would rise to horror prominence again. Even half a century later The Butterfly remains an undiluted classic and an incredible achievement from the unlikeliest of places.