In the simultaneous role of star and director, Branko Tomović’s Vampir fails to fulfill a sense of purpose with this debut take on Serbian vampiric myths.
No film should ever compel a viewer to use Wikipedia in moments of narrative silence—yet Tomović drives us to knock on that door often. A heady mix of gothic ingredients, Vampir lays the groundwork for what should be a compelling cinematic experience, instead making a segue into unexplained actions and hollow motifs. Playfully teasing connections to Balkan culture, the film has fleeting moments of brilliance before leaving its audience in a cesspit of visceral predictability.
A witness to a brutal crime in London, Arnaut (Tomović) finds refuge in a small Serbian village, taking on a menial job as a cemetery caretaker. Arnaut is soon afflicted with nightmarish hallucinations, encountering strange behaviour from neighbours at a distance. As sinister intentions begin to reveal themselves, the only ally Arnaut can rely on is the local priest, seemingly unaffected by the town’s advances.
From reading the above summary, Vampir’s narrative structure reads as foolproof, unable to score anything but a hole-in-one. The elements of visual horror are stomach-churning, leaving no sordid detail left to the imagination. Many of the key boxes in the horror checklist are ticked off—a lone, unassuming protagonist, an eerie location, a sinister company of strangers, a sense of the unknown and a heavy pasting of gore. At the same time, the scale of the unknown is so overwhelming, any planned personal sense of purpose is all but lost. There’s little clarity for who Arnaut is, why he’s there or how his choices can drive a convoluted narrative forward.
In short, there’s no sense of dramatic urgency. Promise of greatness shows early on—alongside an enjoyable level of visual detail, there’s true beauty in small pockets. Balkan folklore takes an obvious form in the merging of vampiric activity and Kolo (a national dance) as Arnaut sits outside a restaurant, and the scene is nothing short of bewitching. Flashes of coven activity draw us in with a choral omnipotence, whetting the appetite for greater things to come. What we actually get is an unsure balance between arthouse slow-build and a lack of prolonged intrigue.
Viewers are left in a pile of many loose threads, with the noticeable lack of context frustrating
Tomović toys with many respected and familiar concepts through Vampir—A Snow White biting of the fruit, blood motifs harking to “I see dead people”—which largely amount to nothing. There’s an overwhelming sense of refusal to edit, relying on the impact vampires bring unto themselves. It’s possible the film may be more aptly described as ‘man who spends a lot of time walking and settling into a new house’. Viewers are left in a pile of many loose threads, with the noticeable lack of context frustrating. As a result, it’s difficult to create empathy without context present—even if the genre pulls focus on dismembering body parts.
All that being said, there’s still an underlying sense of subverting expectation. Even though we can clearly see the plot points ahead, minor saving graces such as the lens of Christianity and deliberate removal of English subtitles make for an edge that’s just jarring enough to keep you watching. The commitment to body horror cannot be seen as unsatisfying, but the hollow shell of horrifying visual cinema falls short of propelling real purpose to genre.
Although Vampir flirts with cultural intrigue and attentive visuals, the combination of not following through and overt lack of direction make for an unsurprisingly mundane watch. Next time you’re after an exciting interpretation of vampires in Serbian culture (which understandably may not be all that often), it might be best to stick to the history books.
Words by Jasmine Valentine
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