Finding new and interesting takes on vampire stories is a pretty tough row to hoe at this point. They’re among the oldest and most famous folklore monsters and the lore surrounding them, at least as laid out in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, feels mostly concrete. It’s strange, then, why more movies don’t explore the folklore in a different way, from a different part of the world. Adrien Beau’s debut feature The Vourdalak does this, exploring the Russian/Slavic vampire legend through its most popular written work. Oh, and it also makes the vampire a creepy puppet. That helps.

The Vourdalak adapts Aleksey K. Tolstoy’s 1839 novella, The Family of the Vourdalak, which predates both Le Fanu’s 1873 Carmilla and Stoker’s 1897 Dracula. Vourdalaks differ from our traditional understanding of vampires. They drink blood, sure, and they are undead, but the sun has little to no effect on them, and they tend to only feast on members of their family. That aspect forms the foundation of the story. It’s the breakdown of a family unit in a time and culture that values family, and respecting elders of the family, above all else.

The movie places the action in the late 1700s wherein French nobleman Marquis Jacques Antoine Saturnin d’Urfe (Kacey Mottet Klein) finds himself stranded in Eastern Europe, looking for a place to spend the night. The Turks had recently raided the village, but the villager tells the Marquis to seek shelter at the house of an elder named Gorcha. On the way, the Marquis meets Gorcha’s daughter Sdenka (Ariane Labed) and immediately becomes infatuated. Unfortunately for him, Sdenka—who desperately wants to leave for a better life—has other things on her mind.

A gaunt vampire sinks its teeth into a boy's neck in The Vourdalak.

The Gorcha household, we and the Marquis learn, consists of the aged Gorcha, Gorcha’s three children—eldest Jegor, Sdenka, and younger son Piotr—and Jegor’s wife and son. Jegor left to find the Turkish raiders and, returning after a month, discovers Gorcha himself went out after the Turks. Gorcha told his family if he does not return in six days, they should assume he’s dead. If he returns after the six days, they should assume he’s a vourdalak and refuse him entry. Jegor finds this absurd and the Marquis finds it peculiar.

However, after assuming the missing Gorcha had indeed died, the old man appears at the edge of the forest at exactly six days, to the minute. He looks like a corpse, clearly little more than a skeleton with skin, but he holds so much sway over his children, especially Jegor, they allow him to stay. Would you be surprised to hear he’s a vourdalak?


Beau makes a couple of really clever choices that set this movie apart from other adaptations. Famously, Mario Bava’s 1963 anthology film Black Sabbath adapts the story with Boris Karloff as Gorcha. Less famously, the 1972 Giorgio Ferroni film The Night of the Devils moved the action to the modern day. But Beau in fact moves it further back in time, so that our French nobleman is a ridiculous, white-makeup-faced fop. He’s a ridiculous sight to us, but it makes him especially ridiculous to the locals who know nothing of French courtiers. He’s an outsider.

The other major change, obviously, is that Gorcha himself when we see him is so inhuman, so far gone down the road of undead monster, that he’s not even a person. Gorcha is head to toe a full-size rod puppet, with Beau providing the voice. He has full scenes of dialogue, in full light—more than enough to make it clear, this ain’t a man. This is entirely the point! It’s easy to look at Boris Karloff and, even with some makeup, recognize he’s the man you used to know. It’s impossible to look at the thing in this movie and see anything but a grotesquery. And yet…


The Vourdalak uses its uncanny visuals to its benefit, heightening a story that certainly feels pretty familiar to horror fans. In addition to the puppetry, we have some lovely, gloomy dream sequences and bloody set pieces. The cast acquit themselves very nicely, perfectly playing the severity of the situation, even amid the unreality of the threat. Klein also manages a compelling protagonist who is at once compassionate and forthright, and a ridiculous buffoon who is a rich creep.

I think if The Vourdalak has any downside, it’s that none of it is particularly scary. Parts of it, especially later in the story involving Gorcha’s feeding, should be eerier than they are. Perhaps that isn’t the point, however the aforementioned Italian versions certainly slanted toward a growing creep factor I don’t think The Vourdalak ever comes close to. Doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie, and if grotesqueness is all you’re after, this French-language offering has plenty for you. The puppet alone is worth the 90 minute watch.

The Vourdalak

The Vourdalak opens exclusively in US cinemas on June 28th from Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. He hosts the weekly pop culture deep-dive podcast Laser Focus. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Instagram and Letterboxd.