The Toronto After Dark Film Festival wrapped up this past Friday, the fest played some of the best genre films from around the world. One film in particular seems poised to become the sleeper hit of the fest: Strigoi, the debut film from director Faye Jackson. An eccentric and extremely black comedy, Strigoi is set against the backdrop of a small town in post-communist Romania. If you’re like me, and you’ve always found something unsettling about small towns or the country, then Strigoi will definitely strike a chord with you.
For all intents and purposes, Strigoi is a movie about vampires; however, don’t expect the typical vampire fare. Never has the term morbid humour been more appropriate for a film. The movie takes the vampire mythos back to basics, to its roots based in Romanian folklore. Strigoi are something between a zombie and a vampire. They are the undead; drinking the blood of the living by night. And, as the film’s protagonist Vlad quickly begins to realize, they’re also your neighbours.
Spoilers to follow.
Vlad comes from a family of doctors. He even went to medical school with the intention of taking up the family profession, but he never finished. Vlad becomes ill at the sight of blood, not normally a quality a doctor can have. After flunking out of med school and spending a few years abroad, Vlad returns to his home town in Romania. Besides the accidental death of the town drunk and the recent disappearance of the resident wealthy landowner, nothing much has changed; or so it seems. It is immediately evident to Vlad that the drunk’s death was not an accident and that the townsfolk know more than they’re letting on. Vlad begins to wonder how the landowner is involved and why the whole town is conspiring to keep the truth from him. What starts off as a murder mystery, turns into something even more unsettling.
The town in the film is a character unto itself, filled with that small town creepiness and populated with all the familiar archetypes: the mayor, the priest, the sheriff, the busy-body and more. The film’s shocking opening scene will make you wonder about the motives of the townsfolk, but by the end you’ll understand. Many of the villagers have gone through a lot in their lifetimes. First it was the Nazis, then the Russians, then the Communists and now it’s the capitalists. Compared to the hardships they’ve already endured, vampires are no big deal.
Strigoi is a very low-key film; this isn’t Twilight or Night Watch. No flash or over-stylization, it’s a quiet and methodical film. What could have easily could have turned into an action packed vampire kill-fest, thankfully does not. Like Vlad, the audience is new to the town and has no idea how sinister the truth is. As the mystery unfolds and the reality of what Vlad needs to do begins to dawn on you, you’ll really sympathize with the character. There is no happy ending, the finale is an ambigious one at best. In the end it’s difficult to tell who the real bloodsuckers are.
Strigoi was a British-Romanian co-production, in more ways than one: the English director is married to the Romanian producer. Strigoi is an impressive feature film debut for Jackson, who previously directed documentary and short films. To say Romania had a rough go of it during the twentieth century would be an understatement, and they address this in the film. The political allegory in the film never feels heavy handed though. Jackson has a spartan, almost utilitarian way of shooting the film, which suits the backdrop just perfectly. Although the version of the film I saw could probably benefit from some tighter editing, the slow pacing manages to suit the sleepy little village very well. It was odd to watch a film with a such an Eastern European aesthetic, where the actors (all Romanian) spoke English. All the actors turn in wonderful performances, which is especially impressive when you consider that English is not their native language.
We’re in a bit of a vampire renaissance these days with the immense popularity of True Blood and Twilight. But Strigoi is more unique than that, it has more in common with Let The Right One In than either of those. Somehow the film manages to be both disturbing and charming at the same time, a fine line to walk. Totally original and twistedly funny, Strigoi will make you rethink what the true nature of a vampire really is.