Vampire movies often take the form of fantasy fulfillment. The ultimate lover. The ultimate horror. The ultimate minority group. Somewhat rarer, more difficult to find are those movies that seek to explore what being an undead creature enslaved by a hunger for blood might actually be like.
“Strigoi,” the 2009 movie from writer/director Faye Jackson falls into this category. Set appropriately enough in Romania (how close to Transylvania is anyone’s guess), the movie tells the story of Vlad (Catalin Paraschiv). No, not a vampire. Nor a nobleman. A washed-up medical student renowned for his squeamishness and having just returned from Italy. Only he comes home to the rural village where his family has lived for generations to confront a mystery. Florin, a local drunk, is dead and Vlad can clearly see the signs he was strangled. More, the men sitting watch over his body for three days and three nights (to make sure he doesn’t rise as a strigoi–a Romanian vampire), have suspiciously good items on their person. An excellent watch. Fine Italian shoes. One them almost blurts some kind of secret. And the local police don’t want to talk about it.
What follows could be the stuff of an ordinary vampire movie. But what it proves to be is more akin to the Coen Brothers than Bram Stoker or Stephanie Meyer. For one thing, we already know the secret. Or what the locals think is the big secret. Certain of who killed Florin, they murdered the former mayor and his wife–the wealthiest couple in town (shades of the late dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu). Afterwords everyone looted their house. Nobody even tells Vlad the rich couple are dead, so naturally he sees nothing wrong in going to see them to ask if they know anything. We know there’s something odd about finding them alive, or something like alive. Both are flushed, hungry, and look sick. Well, they are dead after all. And yes, strigoi.
Since our collective image of a vampire is based on Austrian legend, some points about Romanian undead. Strigoi are not pale but red. They eat not only blood but pretty much anything. To kill them you need to remove and burn their heart.
Pretty soon Vlad’s mother is terrified to find the woman she saw murdered in her kitchen. Not simply because the woman is now a vampire, which means there are such things. Nor fear of the creature drinking her blood. She’s upset upon realizing the gigantic feast prepared for Florin’s wake is being devoured. She’s going to have to cook it all over again! At cock’s crow, the strigoi returns to her grave. Nobody believes her. Not because a dead woman was eating the food, but because there was garlic in the food. Strigoi don’t eat garlic. She can’t be one. That is that.
Another touch of realism all too missing from many a vampire film–people are stupid. Not moronic or dumb or doing things that make no sense. Just stupid in a totally mundane kind of way. They make excuses, tell terrible (as in unbelievable) lies that work half the time because the people they’re talking to are just as stupid. When something goes wrong, they come up with a stupid explanation. At one point in the story Vlad is knocked out and wakes to find his neighbors getting ready to bury him. Not one of them bothered to check his pulse. He was unconscious for maybe an hour or two.
If this sounds funny, it is (and kudos to the filmmakers, for vampire comedies rarely work). But at the same time it manages to be sad, poignant, infuriating and at times even wise. Another detail about the strigoi–they can be created by a violent death and the soul involved rises to crave vengeance. On one level, one might think belief in this might serve as a deterrent to lynchings. But no. On the other hand it isn’t as if anyone really truly believed. They only sorta/kinda believed. More to the point, those conditions might be just right to create many strigoi don’t you think? A brutal Romanian dictatorship, following an invasion and rule by Nazis, and in the wake of a revolution things didn’t really get much better. One might expect the country to be up to their eyebrows in strigoi! Yet as the garlic incident shows, myth and folklore do not make perfect guides. Exactly why anyone becomes a strigoi remains a mystery.
Turns out there are mysteries within mysteries in this small town, and the various strigoi walking around the landscape (containing one good house and a beautiful Orthodox Church) end up being the tip of a proverbial iceberg. In the process Vlad (who frankly comes across as a nice enough guy, but a loser) ends up something of a bedraggled working class hero. Of sorts. Bad enough he can’t make a living at what he’s trained for, or that his grandfather is a crazy old man who thinks the Communists are stealing his last cigarettes, but he accidentally comes across a conspiracy to grab farm land. Then finds out corpses are walking around biting other townsfolk. A couple of them even help him solve the aforesaid conspiracy!
A totally unique vampire film, with both a funny bone and a heart. Plus dirty fingernails.