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rochefort [Film Festival 11.02.09] United Kingdom movie review comedy drama fantasy

Year: 2009
Directors: Faye Jackson
Writers: Faye Jackson
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: rochefort
Rating: 5 out of 10

In the opening scene of "Strigoi", directed by Faye Jackson, ex-Communists Constantin and Ileana Tirescu (Constantin Barbulescu and Roxana Guttmann), cold-hearted landowners whom the townspeople suspect of murder, are themselves murdered and buried, angry mob style. Soon after, Vlad (Catalin Paraschiv) returns to his Romanian hometown after an extended vacation in Italy, and finds that the townspeople are dropping like flies. Almost everyone but him is convinced that an undead Constantin and his wife are responsible, but Vlad and local policeman Octav (Vlad Jipa) decide to conduct their own amateur investigation into the steadily-rising death toll, uncovering a long-buried local history of corruption, racism, and supernatural dirty tricks. An alternative to the glut of glossier and more expensive vampire movies both recent and upcoming, "Strigoi" is a mixed bag of small-town charm and low-impact horror storytelling, one that often had me wishing Jackson had devoted as much attention to the supernatural aspects as she has the mundane.

A strigoi, according to Romanian myth, is not exactly a vampire. Some are living creatures that have supernatural powers, while others are restless, undead souls who drain the blood of the living. Constantin and Ileana seem to fall into the latter category, although it's hinted at in the script that they may have been strigoi all along. Regardless of the titular creatures' true nature, "Strigoi" is, for all practical purposes, yet another vampire movie. So I guess the main question is, does it belong in the pile of half-assed properties like "Twilight" (perhaps the only movie in history capable of making "A Vampire in Brooklyn" look good by comparison), the CW's "Vampire Diaries", or the awful "Daybreakers", each a source of embarrassment for true horror fans? Or is this another example of how to breathe new life into the old myth by merging it with indie sensibilities, a la "Martin" or "Let the Right One In"?

"Strigoi" comes with some high hopes attached, in no small part because it's set in Romania, the more or less accepted home of the vampire myth, so this could be considered something of a return to roots. But what's more apparent is that Director Jackson has melded "Salem's Lot" with the sort of indie-friendly light comedy typical of such films as "Waking Ned Devine" or "Local Hero", and it makes for a nice break from the norm. But not particularly exciting filmmaking. If you've seen the trailer or read any synopsis, you know pretty much everything that happens, story-wise, because "Strigoi" is a very calmly-paced quasi-farce more interested in its characters' eccentricities than any real attempt at horror or suspense. And it works extremely well, for what it is. But the pace and convoluted plot ensure that most horror fans are not going to watch this one more than once.

And bizarrely enough, this Romanian vampire movie has one of the most confusing internal mythologies in recent memory. Almost every vampire pic takes a liberty or two with the rules of its creatures: garlic, sunlight, stakes through the heart, crosses, etc., all have varying significance from story to story. We the audience tend to give a certain latitude with regards to the old tropes, and in some cases the variations can yield some clever twists. But in "Strigoi" the rules are given to us piecemeal, and even then are too vaguely defined, so it's almost impossible to gauge how much of a threat, if any, the creatures really are. Ileana spends most of the movie inside the home of Vlad's next door neighbor, gorging herself on every item of food the poor woman can cook, and we never really learn why. And for all the brooding and snarling Constantin does, a whack on the back of the head with a shovel seems to be all it takes to put him down. Huge chunks of the plot will also be lost on those audience members who don't have at least a mild background in Romanian history. The references to communists and gypsies, both historically despised by many Romanians, have particular significance in the plot and inform many key motivations, but no attempt is made to apprise the uninitiated.

In terms of character, however, "Strigoi" is populated with a very believable and colorful rogue's gallery, from Vlad to Octav to Vlad's paranoid and often funny grandfather. Many of the townspeople have a blackly comic indifference to the many horrific events going on, and it's not hard to believe that this was Jackson's intention all along. Vlad seems to be the only person in the whole movie at all shocked by the notion that someone might rise from the dead to settle old scores, and it's hinted at that his disbelief is a side effect of the corrupting influence of his recent trip to Western Europe. For everybody else, hey, this is Romania. And this sense that the supernatural is just another part of everyday Romanian life is the thing that most definitely distinguishes "Strigoi" from the pack. I just wish the overall story had gotten my blood up at least a little bit.

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