Plot: resurrected vampire lord vows to cover the world in darkness…
Vurdalaki (released domestically as Вурдалаки, in most of Europe as Vamps, and in North America as Ghouls) is probably the closest a contemporary gothic horror has come to the mid-sixties model. Also not unimportant is that Vurdalaki is a loose but surprisingly faithful adaptation of the 1839 novella The Family of the Vourdalak from Aleksei Konstantinovich Tolstoy. Vurdalaki harkens back to the halcyon days of monochrome when atmosphere reigned supreme, and bodice-ripping, blood-drinking, bosom-baring vampires were something solely existing in the fevered and over-active imaginations of viewers, directors, and producers alike. Sergey Ginzburg has imbued his Crimean gothic horror throwback with an incredible sense of modesty, perhaps relying on digital effects a bit too much where practical effects would have worked far better. That being as it may, Vurdalaki is an inoffensive gothic horror offering – although it sort of makes you wish it tried a little harder. For all the things it does right, it’s often too modest for its own good.
In 18th century Russia the Empress Elizaveta Petrovna sends her government secretary godson Lyubchinsky Andrej Vasilevich (Konstantin Kryukov) and his aide Paramon (Roman Madyanov) to a remote corner of the Carpathian Mountains near the border with the Ottoman Empire. They are ordered to collect exiled monk Lavr (Mikhail Porechenkov) at the Spassky Monastery and bring him to the capital of Saint Petersburg under the guise of urgent government business. When Andrej is rebuffed by Father Lavr on grounds that the village needs him more – and that whatever business the Empress Elizaveta has is none of his concern. Andrej and Paramon prepare for the month-long journey back to the capital. Before they depart Paramon spots a virginal young shepherd girl bathing in a nearby lake, but is injured by said girl before catching a glimpse of her. Milena (Aglaya Shilovskaya) promises to take Paramon to the family farm to treat his injuries. There Milena lives with her parents Gorcha (Mikhail Zhigalov) and Mariki (Yuliya Aug) as well as her older and younger brother Georgyi (Konstantin Milovanov) and Misha (Ivan Shmakov). As Paramon recovers and Andrej spents time on the farm he falls in love with Milena.
Meanwhile, resurrected vampire lord Vitold Bishteffi (Andrey Rudenskiy) and his loyal servant Turok (Igor Khripunov) have taken up residence in the former’s old castle. According to Bishteffi’s calculations in three days from now a constellation that happens only once every 150 years will occur and grant him untold powers. With the blood of a specially selected virgin he will be able to live in daylight. When he does he and his breed will subjugate mankind and restore vampires as the dominant class. Vitold orders Turok to bring Milena to the castle for a black magic rite but when he finds opposition from Andrej and Paramon more draconic measures are required. That night Bishteffi unleashes his imprisoned vampires to devour the village and expand his army of undead fiends. The force is too overwhelming and Milena does fall into enemy hands. Now with an army big enough to mount a counter-attack Vitold launches an all-out raid on Spassky Monastery. Will the combined forces of Andrej, Paramon, and Father Lavr be enough to repel Bishteffi’s legion before they overrun the world?
Like the classic Italian, Spanish, and Latin American gothics here too religion (Orthodox Christianity) is an integral part of the proceedings and there’s no shortage of religious iconography. Vurdalaki is pretty secular for the most part and initially introduces Father Lavr as a cynical clergyman wary of government interference. The aide Paramon is in the midst of a crisis of faith and completely useless for most of the first two acts. The three-man team of Andrej, Paramon, and Father Lavr and with Milena acting as the sacrificial virgin Vurdalaki at times feels like a Slavic riff on The Day Of the Beast (1995). Even moreso when Lavr starts reciting Revelation 21:1 during the wurdulak raid on the farming hamlet and the monastery. And just like in that movie Paramon regains his faith after the shared experience of warding off the undead horror.
Anybody weaned on, or familiar with, vintage gothic horror will recognize a few classic scenes. Vitold Bishteffi’s resurrection is lifted straight out of Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel. Just like Hélène Rémy in The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960), Lyla Rocco in The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960), and Barbara Hawards in The Monster Of the Opera (1964) Milena too hears the voice of blood, although she can’t immediately place it. Bishteffi performs a rite just like in Terror In the Crypt (1964) or Twins Of Evil (1971) – and like Damien Thomas in that Hammer classic he’s far from an imposing vampire lord. The vampires in the dungeon is something straight out of The Monster Of the Opera (1960). Even though Vurdalaki adheres by much of the classic tropes, it couldn’t be much more of an antithesis of what the genre used to thrive on several decades ago. This largely stems from this being a Russian production, and Russia (although constitutionally secular) is staunchly and devoutly Orthodox. Vurdalaki is filled to the brim with religious iconography and leans heavily on the religious aspect.
The reason to see Vurdalaki is model Aglaya Shilovskaya. Back home in Russia Shilovskaya is a television personality and singer. She had a spread in Maxim Russia (January, 2017) and presented the sixth season of The Voice Kids in 2019. The closest comparison we can think of is probably Nicola Posener. Director of photography Andrey Gurkin manages to capture Shilovskaya from various flattering angles, but those hoping Vurdalaki would get some bare flesh and bounce out of Shilovskaya will be sorely disappointed. She gets exactly one semi-revealing scene during the bathing in the lake, but that’s as far as it goes. On the whole Vurdalaki tends to gravitate more towards a bog-standard action movie than a straight-up horror. Arrowstorm’s five-part Mythica (2014-2016) saga amped up the horror more than Vurdalaki ever does. And that’s a sad thing because this could have been an excellent throwback to the horrors of yore. Instead director Sergey Ginzburg keeps everything respectable and modest at all times. The Love Witch (2016) oozed sensuality from every pore. Dead Man Tells His Own Tale (2016) was tenser. This is about the farthest from Blood Of the Virgins (1967), Black Magic Rites (1973), The Dracula Saga (1973), and Nude For Satan (1974) as you can possibly get.
As is pretty much the standard these days and no matter how much we might hate it digital effects are the order of the day – and Vurdalaki, sadly, is no different. Everybody is impeccably clean for the times too, and not a single soul has a speckle of dirt on them despite this being primarily set in a farming hamlet. On the plus side, the action direction, cinematography, and choreography is better than it has any reason to be. The scimitar duel between Andrej and Turok especially is a fine piece of action filmmaking, moreso because Ginzburg refrains from using the maligned shaky-cam and the editing is not nearly as frantic as is the norm these days. It would probably have benefitted from old-fashioned practical effects, and tends to etch closer to Underworld (2003) and Van Helsing (2004). This is a far-cry from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) or any of the Latin American and Mediterranean European vampire flicks that inspired it. Which is really an elaborate way of saying that Vurdalaki is a vampire movie without any bite. If this is in any way representative for the general state of Russian horror, it looks like you’re not missing much of anything.