Vamps (2017)

Rating: C

Dir: Sergey Ginzburg
Star: Mikhail Porechenkov, Aglaya Shilovskaya, Konstantin Kryukov, Andrey Rudenskiy
a.k.a. Ghouls. Original title: Vurdalaki

This is an adaptation of a story by Tolstoy. While you may think this gives it a certain literary cachet, coming from the author of War & Peace, I am obliged to burst your bubble, by pointing out it’s a different Tolstoy. This one is Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, and was a second cousin of Leo, though still seems to have been pretty well-respected. Wikipedia calls him “the most important nineteenth-century Russian historical dramatist,” which is nice. The work in question here is The Family of the Vourdalak, a novella originally written in 1839, and so pre-dating Bram Stoker’s vampire novel by almost sixty years. It had previously inspired one of the sections in Mario Bava’s 1963 film Black Sabbath, but this seems to be the first “native” adaptation of this Russian story.

Naturally, it’s significantly vamped-up – pun entirely intentional – for a modern audience. The sucker of blood here, Vitold Bishteffi (Rudenskiy) wants to introduce an era of vampire world domination; if only he didn’t burst into flames every time he was exposed to daylight. However, there is an occult ritual which may be able to solve that pesky little problem. Two elements are key. Firstly, there’s a specific and rare astrological alignment needed; that’s due in a few days, so time is of the essence, since it won’t come round again, for another 150 years. The other component required is a virgin, and not just any virgin. The one in question is Milena (Shilovskaya), who possesses certain ancestry which render her the perfect ingredient.

Fortunately for humanity, Milena has come under the protection of rather unorthodox religious man Lavr (Porechenkov) and civil servant Andrej Vasilevich (Kryukov). The latter, godson to the Empress, was sent to bring the previously exiled Lavr back to the Russian capital, for reasons that are vague, yet fortunately don’t matter. However, a chance encounter with Milena alerts Lavr to the looming, vampiric threat in the area, while Andrej begins to fall in love with her. The Empress is clearly just going to have to wait, especially as Bishteffi sends his minions after Milena. When the first couple of abduction attempts are easily enough repelled, he pulls a Stansfield, due to the impending nature of his need for her, and unleashes a whole horde of the undead, including some thoroughly ripped ones, who have clearly been working out at the gym. Presumably a 24-hour one.

The individual elements are here, at least in a story-line which has the potential to offer something new cinematically, in terms of putting vampires in an Orthodox Christian setting, rather than the traditional Catholic or Protestant setting. While there’s no shortage of nods to religion, this element only rarely comes front and centre. There’s a sequence where Lavr has to convince a mother to stake her own child that’s quite effective. Otherwise, this is only above-average when it’s in motion. The production values in general are good to very good, with some particularly impressive cinematography. The action components are well-handled too, peaking in the mass attack by Bishteffi’s minions on the village, swamping the streets in a tidal-wave of death.

The problem are characters which rarely get above the level of blandness. Lavr needs to be a committed zealot, dedicated to defeating the vampire menace, yet too often you get the impression he is being only marginally irritated by the threat. Andrej seems to have little in the way of personality at all, and if you can see why he falls in love with Milena (Shilovskaya being a model and singer, as well as an actress: have a link to her NSFW Russian Maxim pictorial), the reverse is not true. The pair have no palpable chemistry at all, to the point where even a looming vampocalypse should merit a second date. Worst of all is probably Bishteffi, who exudes close to zero menace. His contribution to the movie peaks with a reasonably impressive first entrance. It’s all downhill from there, Rudenskiy playing his powerful vampire lord, more as if he was some kind of gay Eurotrash. We’re down in “Johnny Alucard” territory, folks.

It’s thus something of a relief that, particularly in the first half, we don’t see very much of him, the focus being on the marginally Holy Trinity of Lavr, Andrej and Milena. At least they are less irritating and move the plot forward, albeit in a way that’s flavoured like vanilla pudding. The trio feel like they were inspired by Hammer: Lavr seems like a Russian Orthodox take on Father Shandor from Dracula, Prince of Darkness, sharing that character’s no-nonsense style, while Andrei’s familiarity with a sword and Milena’s competent eye-candy could come from Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter. It’s just in severe need of someone to make the viewer give a damn about what happens: either a hero or a villain, it probably doesn’t matter much.

Instead, I never found myself caring on more than the shallowest of levels: “I guess having a horde of vampires roaming the streets would probably be a bad thing. But let’s face it – I work from home, so as long as DoorDash still deliver, it would be more of an inconvenience.” This goes to show that technical competence, which this has in no short measure, can only take you so far in terms of movie making. Worth noting: there is both a dubbed and a subtitled version of this out there. Not difficult to figure out which one is very much the preferable option.

This review is part of our October 2023 feature, 31 Days of Vampires.