Girl Meets Context: It’s Indie Horror Month, where we cover some of the best original and independent horror movies to be released in the last few years. Strigoi is British director Faye Jackson’s feature-length debut. It concerns Vlad (Cătălin Paraschiv), a med school dropout who has returned to the Romanian village of his childhood after spending time abroad in Italy. Once there, he begins to suspect that the recent death of an elderly man in the village might actually be a murder the villagers are trying to cover up. As he investigates the case, he comes into conflict with a corrupt local priest (Dan Popa), the town’s mayor (Zane Jarcu) and his henchmen, and Constantin Tirescu (Constantin Bărbulescu), a wealthy land baron who used to rule the area during the Communist era. What Vlad begins to realize is that both Tirescu and his wife were murdered by the villagers and have returned as strigoi – undead blood-drinkers from Romanian folklore. Kristine and I sat down to think through the movie’s approach to masculinity, post-Communist Eastern Europe and violence. If you haven’t seen Strigoi please be forewarned that our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. So go watch the movie – it’s on Netflix Instant if you’re a user of that service – and come back!
Sean: So I have NO idea what you might have thought of Strigoi…
Kristine: Oh! I liked it! It wasn’t amazing, but I thought it was solid and had some great moments. And you?
Kristine: That sounds about right…
Sean: I’m struck by how it uses the tropes of horror movies to tell a story that really, at the end of the day, isn’t quite a horror story. It’s a story about the internal lives of the characters and about the history of the region. It’s very allegorical.
Kristine: I agree and I thought the allegorical elements were woven into the movie really successfully, while still keeping the entertainment value high.
Sean: In fact, I’ve seen it a few times and I still couldn’t explain all the land stuff or some of the finer details of the plot mechanics. For a little movie, it’s pretty dense. Everyone has a backstory, there’s a lot of political maneuvering, a lot of conflicting motivations. Especially in Vlad’s relationships with the priest, the cop and the Mayor of the town, who are our three key supporting players. And of course also Constantin Tirescu, the lead strigoi (a.k.a. vampire). Every character is connected to everyone else, and we’re always dealing with how the Communist-era history of the region hangs over the present-day events.
Kristine: Right, exactly. But it stays entertaining, don’t you think?
Sean: Yes, totally entertaining and, I think, very funny and charming. Mara stole my heart and I am in love with Vlad. Cătălin Paraschiv, the actor who plays Vlad, is a fantastic lead.
Kristine: Well, I was just going to ask you to plumb the depths of the plot, since you’ve seen it more than once… but maybe you were just imagining Vlad plumbing YOUR depths. He IS a beautiful man, by the way.
Sean: Right? And I love the character of Vlad a lot. He’s a really great hero and the moral center of the movie without being preachy or annoying. Rewatching this with you, it struck me how very rare it is to get a real hero character in a horror movie. Usually everyone is morally compromised in some way (like Frank in Super or Bart in The Revenant). Horror is a genre of anti-heroes. It is sweet and refreshing to put a truly moral and good-hearted man at the center of a horror movie.
Kristine: Agreed. I really loved Vlad’s story arc – he leaves this backwards village to get a higher education and live in a glam Italian city but then ends up back in the village, having to accept that the “old ways” that he finds repugnant might actually be true. What did you make of it?
Sean: I love the way you just put that. That’s a great encapsulation of his arc, and it also reminds me that even though he’s a “good man,” he’s still flawed. He’s lost, adrift, almost a slacker. But that dilemma – being close to middle age and finding yourself back home and a bit lost – feels both very of-the-moment (this is the Age of Apatow, after all) but also hit pretty close to home for me. Maybe too close.
Kristine: Um, yeah! Agreed.
Sean: The movie refuses to follow conventional story beats for the horror genre. Strigoi really is its own little animal. I thought it was very striking that when the moment comes for a violent, bloody climax with Constantin, the evil land baron/vampire, Vlad refuses to commit any act of violence and that is heroic. I just love the kind of masculinity that Vlad embodies – he’s defined by his humanism and his sense of morality. I also thought that the movie made clear that Vlad was the brave and moral man and that all the older men calling him “pussy” were the monsters.
Kristine: I was just going to mention that awful flashback when Vlad’s grandfather calls him a pussy and makes him slaughter the chicken? I wanted to cry! Is that what your dad was like?
Sean: No, my dad would never have done that. He wasn’t invested in “butch” like that. He would have berated my meager intellect for not being able to figure out math problems correctly. I actually thought that flashback about killing the chicken and the through-line of the missing dog/the dead chickens was a really wonderful bit of business. The specter of violence, and how the daily rhythms of village life are built upon a fundamental violence, is expressed really well by the movie. Returning again and again to the dead chickens both reminds us of that traumatic memory from Vlad’s childhood, but also reminds us that there’s an unchecked violence “loose” in the community. Of course, all this violence is linked to the masculine and Vlad is the “new” kind of man, whose own conception of his masculinity isn’t based on being “tough” or violent.
Kristine: Yes, and that’s evident in the contrast between Vlad and his grandfather, who is also portrayed in a very humanistic way, despite the fact he is this “monster.” But um… the scene when Vlad wakes up and Grandfather is feeding on him? Didn’t it look very… Umm…
Sean: Yes, it was gnarly and incestuous. But also unclear whether it was a dream or not, which I loved. Despite that creepy moment, Vlad’s grandfather was adorable and amazing. At the beginning when he insists that a gypsy or commie broke in to steal his one cigarette…?
Kristine: Yeah, I loved him. And correct me if I am wrong, but wasn’t his “strigoi-ism” explained as occurring because of the extreme trauma he has endured in his life? And I was totally going to bring up the commie/gypsy thing. I almost texted you when we were watching to say, “See????” In Eastern Europe, commies and gypsies are considered to be equally depraved and evil.
Sean: The actual workings of vampirism in the movie are still unclear to me… I mean, Vlad has those horrible herpes bumps all over his body and some of the village men have the bumps on them when they’re all dancing at the end. So are they all “infected”?
Kristine: Well, there are the “undead” strigoi and the living strigoi. But yeah, I didn’t get the full meaning of the bumps either, and whether or not they were involved with turning you into a strigoi. I am guessing they are not connected? That would make the ending so bleak, and that feels out of step with the tone of the movie, which I might describe as jaded but optimistic. I don’t know! Because the camera/Vlad’s gaze does dwell on the bumps like they are menacing… but that’s not how the Tirescus were “turned.” Oh wait, they were already living strigoi before they became undead strigoi, right? I’m confused! For the record, I thought Mrs. Tirescu was a way better vampire/monster. Her eating scenes were Amazing! Disgusting and scary and comic all at once!
Sean: Well the questions about the “rules” of vampirism are, to me, directly connected to the allegorical nature of the movie and how the movie is about village life in post-Communist Romania. The specter of communism, and its legacy, are exactly what the movie is about. I think that’s made clearest towards the end when Vlad confronts Constantin Tirescu and accuses him of never wanting to see anyone else prosper (remember, he was a land baron before the fall of communism) and then Vlad hisses, “You have ALWAYS been strigoi.” It’s clear there that the movie is using the supernatural as a metaphor for real-world political circumstances. Bringing this all back to the mysterious bumps on people’s bodies, I was thinking that the bumps are some indication that their own past/legacy has “infected” them and that the shadow of their communist past stains all of them (which is very Cronenbergian, I might add).
Kristine: Ah, that makes sense. I really liked how at the beginning of the movie, when the villagers are about to execute the Tirescus, we are invited to assume that they are a brutal, ignorant mob lashing out at something they don’t understand because of doltishness and greed. And then it turns out… not exactly. Things are a lot more complicated than that. I think that reversal is reflected in Vlad’s own conflicted views of the villagers, his “people.” He is suspicious of them as well, and does not want to be anything like them. All that was very well done. I also want to say that the dancing scenes (when they are raiding the Tirescus’ house and again at the end) could have been dumb but I found them delightful. And in terms of the finale, a totally believable response to realizing how fucked up the world is and being like, well I guess we should just enjoy ourselves?
Sean: I love the dancing. And I love the song choices, especially “Spirit in the Sky” in the beginning sequence. Did you love Mara?
Kristine: Yes! I loved her a lot. She reminded me in some ways of my Polish grandma, though my grandma would never dance adorably. But totally with the obsessive cooking and showing love through feeding people. I just want to say that anti-Russian sentiment is still very common in Poland. Oh, and I want to ask you – what did you believe when watching the opening scene? That the villages were barbaric thugs? I thought maybe Constantin and wife were Jewish or something,..
Sean: Yes, that scene when Vlad first arrives back in town and Mara is feeding and feeding him and sweeping up crumbs and doting over him says so much about the world of the characters and the way things are there. One thing I really admire about this movie is just its world-building ability. All the minor characters feel vivid and fleshed out and the place feels and rings totally authentic. Those men sitting around the casket drinking vodka and shooting the shit? So great.
Kristine: Yeah, and I loved the one slightly younger guy in the track suit! So other, more oblique, ways the movie reminded me of my grandma?
Kristine: The suspect priest. My grandma, probably like many other Polish ladies of her time, was absolutely Catholic. Her kids went to Catholic school, she went to church all the time and volunteered polishing pews, always had a framed pic of John Paul in her house (by the way, for Polish ladies, John Paul is the only and forever pope). However, she was totally not spiritual. This was all cultural and an expression of her lifestyle. I don’t know if it is a direct causal relationship but she was always deeply suspicious of the clergy. She wouldn’t let my dad be an altar boy because the priest “did things.” Later in her life, when her mind was going a bit, she would talk about looking through a window in the church, or whatever the place is called when the priests live, and seeing them all drinking wine and doing… weird stuff. When she was in her 90s and her church got a new, young priest she was convinced he was interested in her and not in a flattering way. In a “he wants to brutally ravage me” way. So I found the character of the shady village priest very interesting.
Sean: Yeah I love how the movie is not precious or sacred about any institutions. But also, the characters are sort of humanized even when they’re corrupt. Though the fate of the priest is really ambiguous – the last we see of him he’s walking off on the dark road and it seems like someone’s following him (I think it’s Vlad’s grandfather) and I think we’re supposed to think he’s going to be killed? I was unclear about that…
Kristine: Me, too.
Sean: But I love the detail when Mara tears the candlestick out of the guy’s hands so he can’t brain Vlad with it, so then the priest hands the guy the Bible and he knocks Vlad out with that.
Kristine: Ha! I am trying to remember what was said during the confrontation between Constantin and the priest. What was the priest’s motivation for killing the Tirescus? I know money, but I don’t remember the specifics.
Sean: I’m serious, I’m still not sure on all those plot details. My understanding is that is all has to do with land ownership and who holds the title to the land.
Kristine: Right. So, I was shocked when you pointed out this is only the second movie we have watched for horror movie club that was directed by a woman (thought I shouldn’t have been shocked, I do live in the real world). I’m curious what made Faye Jackson choose this world to focus on for her first feature. The movie is totally male-dominated. Mara and Mrs. Tirescu are the only ladies around. This is not a critique or problem I had with the movie, I’m just curious about her decision. I think Strigoi is an accurate portrayal of rural village life, even today. Do you have thoughts? Do you know much about Faye Jackson? Did you notice the total boy’s club?
Sean: Yes I certainly noticed all that and have thought about it. In fact, the first time I saw the movie I just watched it and when I really liked it I went to find out about the director and was surprised when it was a woman. Just because the sensibility of the movie is not overtly “feminine” or “womanly.” Even when I assumed the director was male, I noticed that the movie had gender on its mind. Upon revisiting the movie I was struck by how rarely you get a main character like Mara, a middle-aged women who is just like, a normal person.
Sean: I love all the scenes of her and Mrs. Tirescu in the kitchen, where the domestic space is turned into this site of monstrous consumption and anxiety. I also love the way all the status symbols of capitalism – the kitchen appliances, in particular – play a role in that part of the movie.
Kristine: Agreed!!! Totally! I guess my real point is that I think this movie is, at its core, about masculinity and I think it is interesting that a woman made it.
Sean: Yes, agreed. I think it is about masculinity. Though I think Mara is a main character, an important one, and our other “protagonist.” It’s Vlad and Mara’s movie.
Kristine: Can I give some examples to clarify what I mean?
Sean: Yes please.
Kristine: Vlad is, according the world of the movie, an emasculated male, right? He was “pussy” as a child, he went to med school but couldn’t get licensed or pass finals or whatever because of his fear of blood, and then he returns home and becomes this heroic vampire killer who carves the heart out the “monster.” Again, I think it’s interesting that even though the movie definitely critiques grody, violent he-man manifestations of masculinity, it also shows Vlad, the hero, as taking on those characteristics, however unwillingly, and becoming “a man.” The other thing I really noticed was how Constantin (both the individual and as a stand-in for corrupt institutionalized power) emasculates the men in the village by stealing their land. I was struck by the contrast between Constantin in his fancy house with all his appliances and poor Nicolae, Vlad’s grandfather, in his dingy little room with his little twin bed after his property was taken. Yes, the men are trying to get money and their property back by killing Constantin, but I also think they are trying to reassert their masculinity. And on that note, back to your point about how the movie uses the status symbols of capitalism, my number one favorite re-occuring detail was that gaudy disco boom box!
Sean: Love that boom box, all flashing in the background as it plays Romanian music during all the Mara/Mrs. Tirescu kitchen scenes. But I agree with all of your points about the movie’s approach to masculinity. I like how the movie complicates the gender stuff though – like Vlad’s lab partner in med school, who offers to take over for him and make the incisions into the cadaver, is a pretty young woman… So it is more about Vlad’s sensitivity and aversion to gore/blood. But the movie does “cure” him of that when he cuts out Octav’s heart. That heart-cutting scene, by the way, might be my favorite in the whole movie. Such a hilarious and gnarly take on the age-old vampire-killing scene, like when Vlad is awkwardly trying to sever the large arteries connected to the heart with like, a steak knife and it is so gross and terrible. But I certainly agree with you that land and power in this movie are very much a function of and way of measuring masculinity. Mara is the only one to feel remorse for their killing of the Tirescus (and you’re absolutely right that the opening scene is great because at that point we don’t know why they’re being assassinated and so all kinds of evil reasons – like that they’re Jews and this an act of anti-semitism – float through our heads). Mara returns the garbage bags full of appliances and clothes that she stole from their house and I loved how when she finds the resurrected Mrs. Tirescu in her fridge she tears off the blouse she stole from the Tirescus’ house and tries to hide it under the kitchen table.
Kristine: Oh, the red blouse! Yes. Mara is very interesting. She has all these very stereotypical maternal traits, like always being framed in the kitchen, her need to feed and nurture, etc. But she is also very strong. She is the one who tells Vlad to cut the hearts out, correct? And also, my understanding is that Vlad’s father is alive somewhere in the vicinity and Mara is remarried (to the guy Vlad steals cigarettes from while he’s asleep/passed out on the couch). So I interpret that as Mara left Dad because he was abusive, which I imagine is not the norm in small villages. One Mara detail that cracked me up and illustrates this dichotomy – after Mrs. Tirescu “visits” her and eats all her food, Mara is only concerned that she won’t be able to feed the funeral party! Not that a fucking vampire/strigoi wants to suck her blood! I like how that scene pairs Mara’s domesticity with her strength. In Mara’s world, life must go on and food must be cooked and people must be fed even if there are strigois on the loose wanting to suck your blood. That world-view is repeated when she initiates the dancing in the final sequence.
Sean: I totally agree that the domestic world is a source of strength for Mara and that’s she got a steely core. And I love those food details too. Were the strigois scary?
Kristine: Umm… Kind of. Like I would be scared if Mrs. Tirescu showed up in my kitchen. But I wasn’t scared watching this movie. I actually thought Granddad feeding on Vlad while he was sleeping was the scariest scene.
Sean: Yeah, the granddad scene was really creepy and gross. Would you agree that this movie is a total antidote to the franchise movies we watched last month?
Kristine: Oh yes! Absolutely. Especially with the Mara character.
Sean: Character-driven, full of ideas… I seriously would watch a tv show set in this world and following these characters.
Kristine: Oh, I would love a Strigoi tv show!
Sean: I seriously think the actor who plays Vlad has star quality and should be in things.
Kristine: Things like gay porn?
Sean: Hmmm… Anyway, what do you rate this?
Kristine: Well, there were a few things that I didn’t love about the movie. I didn’t care about Octav, Vlad’s cop friend, for example. There were a couple of slow moments, too (mostly involving Octav).
Sean: I loved Octav!
Sean: I just did. I liked their camaraderie. Vlad needed a friend.
Kristine: I am rating this More feminist than you’d think AND Better and weirder than I expected.
Sean: I concur with those ratings and am stealing them.
Kristine: Yay! I am so proud.
Kristine: Totally agreed.
The Girl’s Rating: More feminist than you’d think AND Better and weirder than I expected
The Freak’s Rating: More feminist than you’d think AND Better and weirder than I expected