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Horror as Folk: Leptirica and Pastoral Folk Horror

“A folk horror film that really felt like it was made by the folk.” That’s how filmmaker Charles Pieper (“Malacostraca”) describes Leptirica on Letterboxd, going on to compare it to “a very laid back version of Viy, sans that film’s spectacular visuals.”

He’s not wrong about either assessment. When your 63-minute film can accurately be described as a “slow burn,” you know that things are burning quite slowly indeed. In fact, Leptirica would barely qualify as horror at all were it not for the folkloric vampire that serves as the film’s crux.

The First Serbian Horror Film

Made in 1973, Leptirica is considered the first Serbian horror film. It was shot in and around the village of Zelinje, in what is today Bosnia and Herzegovina. A place that, in 2013, had a population of less than 425 people. The mill that sits at the heart of the plot is supposedly still there, to this day.

And in many ways, the location is Leptirica’s best (and very nearly only) special effect. Everything looks and feels remarkably natural and lovely. The soundtrack of the film is filled with chanting songs but also the sounds of rural life. The calls of birds, the jingling of sheep bells, the wind in the trees, and the grinding of the mill itself.

The plot concerns a watermill that grinds all the wheat for a village. Over recent months, the mill has lost four workers, all of them victims of what seems to be a vampire who the locals believe was a “horrible” man who lived over a hundred years ago. The vampire appears to us in the audience early on, as we see it slay the most recent of its victims. Hairy, covered in a black cloak, and with a mouth full of fangs, it doesn’t look much like the debonair vampires that we’re used to after Dracula.

This is, in part, because the vampire here is much more folkloric than gothic. The locals are as likely to call it a werewolf as a vampire, and it seems to have elements of both. When they finally track down its grave, they do so by letting a black stallion show them where it is, and when they drive a stake into the coffin, a butterfly escapes.

While we’re accustomed to associating vampires with bats, Serbian vampire lore specifically links vampires with butterflies and moths. When a vampire is slain, the butterfly that represents its soul must also be caught and burned, or else it can go on to plague other victims.

Indeed, that is just what happens in the 1880 novel on which this movie is based. After Ninety Years was written by Milovan Glisic and the movie follows its plot remarkably closely, at least until the ending. The book ends with a fairy-tale happy ending, even if the butterfly escapes and kills “several children before finally disappearing from the region.” The ending of the movie is more ambiguous but certainly less happy.

A Pastoral Gothic

All of this vampire stuff makes up only a small portion of the film’s very brief running time, however. It is far more concerned with its subplot, in which a poor young man in the village wants to marry the lovely daughter of a wealthy local “grouch,” who refuses him because he is a pauper. Like Viy, which we already mentioned and which we will be addressing more fully in a future column, this is as much pastoral comedy as gothic horror – more, in fact, in this case.

While there is certainly atmosphere in Leptirica, it is never gothic. Much of the film takes place in bright sunlight, and even the nighttime scenes are obviously day-for-night. What’s more, there is no real attempt at tension or thrills. This is a comedy with a horror plot, the jokes almost all surrounding the band of farmers who, often drinking, make bumbling and cowardly attempts to rid the mill of its vampiric menace so they can go back to grinding their wheat in peace.

There’s an interview with the director on the Blu-ray included with the set, but I haven’t watched it yet. Still, it’s hard to imagine that Dorde Kadijevic hadn’t seen Viy when he made Leptirica. There are scenes, especially in the film’s climax, that are lifted straight from that picture. (He also remade Viy years later in 1990, as A Holy Place.) But while Viy employs many of the same elements of pastoral comedy that are found here, it is much more emphatically a folk horror picture than Leptirica.

Indeed, what makes this movie stand out isn’t any of its horror elements. What really sells Leptirica is that sense of place, that connection to the land and the people who live there. It feels real and natural, in a way that only regional horror films – folk or otherwise – ever manage. And while Leptirica may not be terribly atmospheric in a horror sense, that connection to the land and the people are a key part of folk horror, pretty much regardless of what definition you’re using.