Folk Horror Festival, Part 3: Three Yugoslavian Yarns

It’s time for another dip into All the Haunts Be Ours, the massive folk horror boxed set from Severin. For this article, I’m going to cover the offerings on disc three, which provides three made-for-TV movies directed by Đorđe Kadijević. Emerging on Yugoslavian television in 1973, they represent cultural relics from a country which no longer exists – Serbia’s state broadcaster has inherited the tapes.

Although Leptirica is presented here as being the main feature and the other two are bonus shorts, this is arbitrary – Leptirica is 65 minutes, the other two films are 45 minutes and 60 minutes, so there really isn’t much in it. All of them can be seen as “radical fairy tales” – to borrow the title of the interview with Kadijević that’s presented on the disc – since they all entail him being inspired by Slavic folklore as a source for genre cinema, with a somewhat postmodern attitude underpinning all and each story enjoying a picturesque 19th Century setting.

Štićenik (Ward)

Mihailo (Milan Mihailovic) flees a man in black across a desolate landscape. Coming to a mental asylum, he begs for sanctuary and is given it. Though he urges the doctors to secure the building against his pursuer, they cannot see his tormentor… or at least, not at first. As Mihailo reclines in the ward and the doctors try to convince him that he is merely delusional, the man in black starts to invade the grounds of the hospital – and those who see him and try to obstruct his mission will suffer for it…

This 45 minute black and white piece resembles Heart of Glass-era Werner Herzog directing a Hammer Horror adaptation of The Prisoner, combining as it does a period setting, a main character haunted by paranoia and persecution, and a dreamlike atmosphere. As time goes by the man in black’s appearances veer between startling extremes – here walking up to the building and half-throttling the janitor when he tries to question him, there appearing to the head doctor on the road and demanding that Mihailo be handed over, then suddenly appearing crawling about on the roof of the building, he projects a sense of constant menace, albeit a menace that the other characters feel unable to directly and clearly discuss.

Sequences like the part where the other patients become disturbed and demand that Mihailo be exiled from the asylum, or where Mihailo falls asleep and seems to dream of himself running through the barren landscape of the start of the story, create an impression of a character who just can’t get out from under this mark of Cain that he’s been invisibly branded by. It definitely feels like a long-ish short, rather than a short-ish movie, and there’s points which feel like the material is being milked to pad out the running time – the last shot, in particular, whilst haunting is sustained for way too long – but it left me interested to see the rest of the picks on this disc.

Leptirica (The She-Butterfly)

Zivan (Slobodan Perovic) is father to a beautiful daughter, Radojka (Mirjana Nikolic). Radojka is in love with Strahinja (Peter Bozovic), but Zivan thinks Strahinja is a loser and a layabout who can’t be expected to take care of himself, let alone Radojka. Meanwhile, the village watermill stands empty – for no less than four times in the last year, the occupying miller has turned up dead. The villagers attribute the deaths to Sava Savanovic, a legendary vampire that is reputed to haunt the mill.

When they hit on the idea of giving Stahinja the job, he takes it up as his chance to earn some money to move away and make a new life elsewhere so he doesn’t have to see Radojka get married off to someone else. The very first night he is there, the vampire attacks him – but when the villagers check in on him the next morning, he is alive and well, albeit covered in flour, having survived the assault. His survival inspires the villagers to think that Sava can be fought after all, prompting them to track down his grave to put an end to him once and for all – and maybe if Zivan realises that Stahinja has braved the horrors of the mill, he’ll realise the lad has some grit to him after all.

This is inspired by Milovan Glišić’s story After Ninety Years, a literary treatment of the vampire legend of Sava Savanovic predating Dracula by a couple of decades. Apparently, it takes quite a few liberties with Glišić’s tale (and the folklore around Sava which inspired it, but having not read it I wouldn’t know. Much of Leptirica is upstaged by the antics of the villagers, who are one and all portrayed as a bunch of rustic goofs. Even Strahinja gets this treatment; it’s not so much that the villagers act as comic relief as Zivan, Radojka, and Sava act as “dramatic relief”. For a vampire film offered up as one of the main attractions of a folk horror anthology, it certainly spends a lot of time focusing on the absurdity, monotony, and superstitions of this rural village of yesteryear.

As well as being occasionally a little tedious and overlong, the villager-focused scenes at points risk muddling some of the actual horror. For instance, when the villagers have located the vampire’s coffin, they prepare to ram a stake into it and pour holy water into the hole, exhorting each other that they may spot a butterfly emerging from the coffin, and that if they do they should make sure to catch it – which they prove unable to do. At first they act like they’ve failed as a result of letting the butterfly escape; then they act like they have essentially succeeded in this mission, which subsequent events prove they are wrong about. It feels like the scene needed a little extra something – just a line of dialogue would do – in order to better justify the villagers resting on their laurels at this point.

Still, running through all this is a sense that things are much darker than they appear on the surface. Instead of conventional music for the soundtrack, the action is backed by eerie wails which take on a drone-like quality as they go. There’s also the moments where Radojka is off on her own and seems to be in an eerie communion with the natural world around her – moments when the distant whooping sound which earlier scenes have associated with the vampire come to the fore.

Much of the slow burn of the first fifty minutes or so of the film eventually bear fruit in the last sections, where a horrible reversal happens which I found shocking even though the fact that the movie’s called The She-Butterfly somewhat spoilers the twist. One can sort of guess from that what sort of direction the ending is going to go in, but how it does it proves especially brutal, and puts a whole other shade on the rest of the story.

Devičanska Svirka (The Maiden’s Tune)

Ivan (Goran Sultanovic) is a traveller in a lonely region. Abandoned by his coachman, he decides to seek hospitality at the local castle, despite warnings from the locals to shun it. Near the castle itself, he encounters a small boy who repeats the warning, and distracted by Ivan is struck by a speeding coach and knocked down. The coach proves to be that of the castle’s owner, Sibila (Olivera Katarina), who lives there all alone with her manservant Bartolomeo (Ivan Jagodic). The duo bring the child and Ivan inside; there is nothing to be done for the boy, but Ivan consoles Sybila that it was an accident.

Staying at the castle, Ivan learns something of Sybila’s sad history, and begins to fall for her. Despite her disarming openness and honesty, however, she won’t explain to him the enigma of the mysterious music which percolates through the castle at intervals, and which seems to put her in a dreamlike state whenever it rings out. And for Sybila, love and death seem to have a morbidly close connection. As she continues her seduction of Ivan over the body of the child and on top of her late husband’s memorial monolith, just where is she taking him?

Returning to black and white, this is a piece which depends on its soundtrack for its effect even more than Leptirica does, with the action backed by music ranging from the bizarre, discordant harp strings of the titular Maiden’s Tune to the almost-imperceptible pulsations that underpin many of the scenes like an even more subtle version of the proto-industrial rumbling that plays throughout David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Unlike Leptirica, though, there’s little comedic about it – it spends its entire running time in the same sort of fever dream territory as Štićenik, appropriately enough since Ivan is far away from anything described from normality; he spends the whole film in territory unfamiliar to him, Sultanovic playing him as an essentially reactive person who’s spurred on less by rational impulses but by horny instincts.

On which note, Olivera Katarina is given the acting challenge of presenting Sibila as a character to be taken seriously despite her abrupt mood swings, generally odd behaviour, and the fact that she doesn’t have a single thing to wear not designed to make her cleavage to jut forth and demand acknowledgement. This she more or less accomplishes.

For his part, Jagodic does not have all that much to do beyond lurk in the background and look sinister, though there is a great part where he momentarily defies one of Sibila’s orders (to leave her alone with Ivan), and she walks over and yanks his finger back hard until the pain prompts him to relent. It’s a particularly creepy and effective moment, both for the nastiness of the action in question and the implication of strength on Sybila’s part and because Bartolemeo makes no move to resist her, which could just be due to the social power differential but feels likely to be more than that (since he did, after all, just defy her instructions).

One suspects this is intended as a sort of riff on Poe, and The Fall of the House of Usher in particular – you have the traveller in a desolate land, you have the lonely house, you have the bizarre and morbid secret at the heart of the house, you have the protagonist fleeing the house at the end. Unfortunately, this is the sort of puzzlebox story which absolutely hinges on how the final revelation lands; if the big payoff doesn’t come across right, then everything else is damaged in retrospect, even if it was quite interesting when you first saw it, because you’ll forever after know that it’s building up to a damp squib.

For me, The Maiden’s Tune does not pass that test. The big reveal of where the music comes from is, alas, faintly laughable – not least because some of the skeletons of the past victims of the horror are still wearing their silly little wigs. Moreover, the resolution makes absolutely no sense – it requires Bartolomeo to abruptly and suddenly decide he’s not going to go along with the horrors any more, despite the fact that contextually it’s been clear he’s been fine with it so far and there’s nothing particularly special about Ivan which seems likely to prompt Bartolomeo to intervene on his behalf.

In addition, it feels weird that the whole “dead child” thing is just dropped before the movie is even half done. Sure, in this sort of dreamlike material you can have stuff which comes into the story and then vanishes like that, but it feels like one hell of a big deal to set up and then just never come back to, and it doesn’t help the issue of Ivan seeming extremely passive and reactive that he doesn’t think to follow up on that. For that matter, his failure to do very much once he’s confronted with the big horrible secret is somewhat risible in its own right.

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