Issue 66 (2019)

Sergei Ginzburg: Ghouls (Vurdalaki, 2017)

reviewed by Zhanna Budenkova © 2019

vurdulakiReleased in 2017, the film Ghouls follows some of the old conventions of the Russian tradition of cinematic horror, including both the Soviet and pre-Soviet periods. One important convention constitutes general reliance on literary horror sources of the 19th century, including gothic narratives by Aleksandr Pushkin, Aleksei Tolstoi, and, of course, Nikolai Gogol, whom the recent Gogol franchise turned into a fictional superhero himself. The tradition goes back to the early days of Russian cinema which saw first adaptations of Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades and Gogol’s horror stories (one of the first versions of the cinematic Vii appeared as early as 1909), followed by subsequent Soviet releases. The era of perestroika engendered special interest in the Romantic horror oeuvre of Aleksei Tolstoi—the film Ghouls is representative of this tendency which persists to the present day.

vurdulakiLike its predecessors in the late Soviet period, The Family of Vourdalaks (1990) and the necro-realist drama Daddy, Father Frost is Dead (Papa, umer ded moroz, 1991), Sergei Ginzburg’s Ghouls is based on Tolstoi’s story The Family of the Vourdalak,written in 1839. In the story, the narrator, French diplomat Marquis d’Urfé, explains that Slavic vourdalaks are similar to vampires, “the dead that come out of their graves to suck the blood of the living.” The marquis mentions, however, that, unlike European vampires, Slavic vourdalaks prefer to prey on their own family and friends, who subsequently turn into vampires themselves—this way, “in Bosnia and Herzegovina entire villages have become vourdalaks” (Tolstoi, 5–6). The diplomat then proceeds to tell about his experiences in a Serbian village, where he comes in contact with a family of vourdalaks whom he barely escapes. The notion of familial violence is retained in Ginzburg’s film, which, in all other respects, drastically deviates from the original story, reinventing its plotlines and adding new imagery and nuances to suit target audiences. While in the original story the action unfolds in Serbia, Vourdalaks takes place in unnamed outskirts of the Russian empire. The cinematic frame is dominated by drone shots of exotic and sublime southern nature (many scenes of the film were shot in Crimea), reinforcing distinct imperial overtones.

vurdulakiThe action of the film revolves around a peasant family, whose ethnicity remains unknown but is marked as distinctly non-Russian – following the literary source, the members of the family carry non-Russian names (Gorcha, Zdenka etc.). The female member of the family, Milena, constitutes an interest of the vampire Vitol'd, who revives from ashes in the early sequences of the film. Vitol’d wants himself and his fellow vampires to rule the world currently dominated by humans, and Milena’s blood should help him to attain this goal. As the film unfolds, we learn that Milena belongs to a special “race” of vampires, called maroi: half-humans, half-vampires, this species is friendly to humans and can withstand sunlight. Vitol’d wants to use Milena’s blood to change the genetics of night vampires, so that his species could also walk in daylight and, subsequently, destroy the humans. Milena is unaware of her own special nature—the rest of her family is human—until she is hunted down by Vitol’d and the truth is revealed. The representation of Vitol’d in the film adheres to cinematic representations of Dracula, which the authors of the film cite as their direct inspiration—Vitol’d is presented as a blood-sucking aristocrat who lives in a mysterious castle. Traditionally, including in Russian and Soviet culture, the figure of vampire was used for social criticism of higher classes or bureaucracy (for instance, in Aleksei Tolstoi’s story Vampire [Upyr', 1841]), the main villains occupy the higher echelons of imperial power in Russia). Despite being alluded to in Vourdalaks, the social aspect of Vitol’d’s vampirism remains undeveloped—the vampire’s non-Russianness is more significant here than his class, especially when he is pitted against his Russian counterpart, aristocrat Andrei Liubchinskii, who, in the end, saves Milena and the world from Vitol’d and his army.

vurdulakiWe first see Liubchinskii when he arrives in the village in order to persuade an exiled Orthodox priest named Lavr, who takes care of the local church, to return to imperial Saint Petersburg because the current monarch forgave him and wants him back. While the film’s official synopsis claims that Liubchinskii is not simply a tsarist messenger, but actually, a godson of the Russian empress Elizabeth (Anon. 2015), no such claim is made in the film. The monarch’s name is never pronounced, and all references as to who the monarch is sound vague and irrelevant. At the same time, the land where the events unfold is marked as an imperial periphery—in one instance, Andrei’s servant Paramon pronounces that it took him and his master about a month to arrive at their destination from St Petersburg. The environment, where the two Russians find themselves, turns out to be increasingly exotic, strange, and hostile. Shortly after their arrival, the travelers learn that the land is full of vourdalaks, who repeatedly rise from their grave and attack humans. Upon hearing the news, Paramon expresses immediate desire to leave this place, but to his displeasure, Andrei has already fallen for beautiful Milena, and is determined to protect her from vampire aggression. The representation of gender relationships in the film adheres to the traditionalist framework—despite her superpowers, Milena remains passive when attacked and abducted by Vitol’d until she is saved by the Russian imperial messenger and the order is restored in her land. The romantic plotline of the film can be easily viewed as a reflection of the imperial dynamic where the Russian metropole, represented by Andrei, is shown as able, active and male, while the non-Russian periphery—Milena—as passive, submissive and female. The strangeness, vulnerability, and also potential hostility of the “female” periphery, ruled by the evil vampirical aristocrat, is understood as a pretext for the liberating efforts of the imperial messenger, who saves the girl and the land.

vurdulakiAs a conclusion, it is worth mentioning another important aspect of the film: its casting choices. The role of the rebellious priest Lavr was given to the Russian star Mikhail Porechenkov, known for his assertive masculine roles in Fedor Bondarchuk’s The 9th Company (Deviataia rota, 2005), the serials Streets of Broken Lights (Ulitsy razbitykh fonarei, 1998-present day) and Liquidation (Likvidatsiia, 2007), as well as many other films. In Vourdalaks, Porechenkov’s character joins Andrei Liubchinskii’s fight for the future of humanity, hence the war against vourdalaks is effectively won by the joined “male” powers of Russian empire and Orthodox Church. In turn, the role of Liubchinskii in the film is given to a young male star, Konstantin Kriukov, whose age and physical prowess ensure the optimistic tone of the film—while the priest Lavr dies in the final standoff against vampires, the film concludes with Milena and Andrei riding their horses toward a picturesque horizon, signifying an open future, untainted by tragedy, death and grief.

Zhanna Budenkova
University of Pittsburgh

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Works Cited

Anon. 2015. ‘Vurdalaki.’ Biulleten' kinoprokatchika, July-August. p.7.

Tolstoi Aleksei. 1839. ‘Sem'ia vurdalaka.’ LetRes: Chitalka.


Ghouls, Russia, 2017
Color, 90 minutes
Director: Sergei Ginzburg
Scriptwriters: Aleksei Timm, Tikhon Kornev, Aleksei Karaulov
DoP: Andrei Gurkin
Production Design: Evgenii Matiunenko, Svetlana Litvinova
Music: Aleksandr Turkunov, Vadim Maevskii
Editing: Ol'ga Proshkina, Konstantin Mazur
Cast: Mikhail Porechenkov, Konstantin Kriukov, Aglaia Shilovskaia, Andrei Rudenskii, Iuliia Aug
Production: Gorad, VVP Al’ians

Sergei Ginzburg: Ghouls (Vurdalaki, 2017)

reviewed by Zhanna Budenkova © 2019

Updated: 2019