Strigoi is the feature debut of British filmmaker Faye Jackson. Her nationality is worth stating as the film’s surface details don’t immediately lend themselves to a UK production. The title relates to Romanian mythology, specifically their variation on the vampire legend, whilst Romania is both the setting for Strigoi (having been filmed there in its entirety) and the source for each and every one of its cast members. Indeed, only when we look behind the camera do we find evidence of any British involvement, although even here key roles are split or shared between the two countries. This ‘Brits abroad’ brand of filmmaking has been somewhat prevalent of late with the likes of Andrew Kötting filming (and financing) Ivul in France, Thomas Clay doing likewise for Soi Cowboy in Thailand and Peter Strickland pre-figuring Strigoi with the Romanian-set Katalin Varga. Yet whereas Kötting, et al were making films that fall firmly within the ‘arthouse’ bracket, Jackson’s feature is a more obviously commercial prospect.
As the mention of vampires no doubt makes abundantly clear Strigoi is a horror film. It’s also a comedy - albeit a somewhat quirky one - and, arguably, something of a detective thriller too. Our central character is the knowingly named Vlad, recently returned to his small Romanian village after an unsuccessful stint in Italy. Encountering the wake of a newly deceased landowner he notices some suspicious markings on his neck which his fellow villagers are reluctant to investigate. Nicknamed “Pussy” by the locals owing to a lack of fortitude that saw all of his closest family members follow careers in medicine, Vlad is already something of an outsider, and it’s a status that is only reinforced as he sets about discovering the real reasons for the landowner’s death. Needless to say, it was not the “accident” he is repeatedly told it was…
From this set-up Jackson is able to bounce Strigoi off in various directions. Most obvious are the genre thrills, from investigation of the central mystery to the increasing levels of blood and gore as Vlad gets closer to the truth. There’s also a seam of humour running through the film that plays off the villagers’ various eccentricities. (Arguably the small town crazies confirm Strigoi’s UK origins having been a mainstay in British cinema from Ealing through to Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero.) Her cast repay this by offering up cartoon-ish portrayals that are determinedly unrealistic and happy to play up to drunken yokel stereotypes. To this Jackson adds some of her own oddball touches, especially noticeable in the choice of music which extends from ‘Spirit in the Sky’ playing over the opening credits to a lovely scene towards the end involving some slow-motion dancing and Beirut’s ‘Postcards from Italy’. More importantly the Romanian setting also provides Strigoi with a political subtext relating to land ownership and its, implied in this case, connections to Ceausescu and the old Communist government. (When reviewing Strigoi for the site as part of the 2010 Belfast Film Festival Noel Megahey summed up these dimensions quite succinctly. That review can be found here.)
This combination of subtle political undercurrents and overt genre filmmaking is a surprisingly successful one, harking back to that seventies strain of US horror cinema documented in Adam Simon’s The American Nightmare and its connections/ramifications to Vietnam, the Kent State Massacre and political assassinations. Such a mixture also arguably makes sense given lead actor Catalin Paraschiv’s career to date, which has encompassed both the likes of 12.08 East of Budapest and straight-to-video splatter sequels Return of the Living Dead 5: Rave to the Grave and Pumpkinhead: Ashes to Ashes. (Co-star Constantin Barbulescu has similarly counterbalanced the arthouse fare of Code Unknown with appearances in Steven Seagal and Uwe Boll pictures.) Speaking of the performers it’s also worth pointing out that, despite a 100% Romanian cast, Jackson has opted to go for the English language as opposed to their native tongue. One of the side-effects of this decision is that a certain woodenness creeps in, especially as we move towards the lower reaches of the cast list, prompting the humour to seem broader than perhaps intended and also, on occasion, creeping in where it most likely wasn’t intended.
Jackson has stated in interviews that the reason behind the English-language screenplay was down to her own understanding of the language and an inability to capture its subtleties. Whilst there is no reason to doubt such claims (though it is worth pointing out that Jackson has a Romanian husband and has regularly visited the country over the past decade or so), it is likely that commercial decisions also affected the choice. There’s a feeling that Strigoi isn’t chasing the Katalin Varga market (an understandably limited one if we’re being perfectly honest), but rather those with a taste for cult-ish horror flicks. It’s tempting to compare the film with those various quirky New Zealand genre pics - from Peter Jackson’s earliest works to Black Sheep - which similarly contained a healthy dose of comedy to leaven the gore. Admittedly it’s not quite as tightly paced as those films which may put some off (or prevent from gaining an equivalent cult audience), though the generous will no doubt put this down to Strigoi being Jackson’s first feature. And this is a film to be generous about given that it’s an undoubtedly promising debut and once again confirms current British horror cinema as considerably more idiosyncratic than its US counterpart. It’s flawed, certainly, but those seeking out a bit of oddball genre entertainment would do well to give it a go.
Strigoi is gaining a UK DVD release on the 22nd August courtesy of Bounty Films. The film appears on a dual-layered disc, encoded for Region 2, and maintains both original aspect ratio (1.85:1) and soundtrack (DD5.1). As should be expected from such a new production both the audio and visual components remain clean and crisp throughout, with neither demonstrating any signs of dirt or damage. Colours are strong and offer no reason to doubt that they don’t match Jackson’s original intentions, whilst the soundtrack copes well with both the score and dialogue. Similarly there are no untoward issues prompted by the transfer. Optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing are also in place.
Special features amount to the trailer and Jackson’s earlier short Lump, made in 2006. The trailer is exactly one minute long and does a good job of summing up Strigoi’s various traits within this confined timeframe. Of course it’s presence is also largely inconsequential, but thankfully Lump is a much more fulfilling inclusion. This ten-minute piece stars Lara Belmont (who you remember from key roles in Tim Roth’s The War Zone and the BBC’s 2002 adaptation of Crime and Punishment) as a woman who discovers a lump on her chest and so seeks medical attention. One operation later and the lump returns, a series of events which are repeated as Belmont slowly comes to doubt her own perceptions. Essentially Lump is as much a horror film as Strigoi, albeit one that plays with fear and paranoia as opposed to gore and politics. It’s sharply handled and tightly controlled by Jackson and signs off with a clever twist. Well worth a look.
Please be aware that the Sony warehouse fire has not affected the release of 'Strigoi'. Discs can still be pre-ordered from the usual e-tailers and should be expected to arrive within the usual timeframes.