For those who like their vampire films loaded heavy on atmosphere and striking visuals, Branko Tomovic’s Vampir is a welcome arrival. Tomovic himself takes the lead role as Arnaut, a man fleeing a dark event in London, who finds himself in Serbia, the land of his family. Drawing upon local myths and superstitions Vampir mixes horror with black comedy, and has dark, bloody fun with its fish out of water plot.
We caught up with Tomovic to discuss his impressive directorial debut, the challenges he faced, and what shooting in Serbia gave the movie.
Rob Daniel: How did the idea for Vampir come about?
Branko Tomovic: My parents are from this rural area in Serbia, where one of the historic vampire cases occurred in the 18th century. Arnaut Pavle is from our neighbouring village and one of his victims from back then was this woman in the tiny village Rujisnik, where we also shot the film. Her house still stands today, and nobody dares to go in.
I spent every summer in that village and people there are still very superstitious and slightly frightened. It’s an eerie place. My grandfather’s house is directly opposite that old, neglected cemetery and has been empty for over 10 years. I wrote the entire film with those two main locations in mind. I wanted to show a very mysterious and haunting side of Serbia, which is inspired by those real vampire cases from the early 1700’s, and based on those folklore elements and myths.
RD: This is your first feature. You wrote, produced and directed it, and appear in the lead role as Arnaut! Did you ever consider just staying behind the camera?
BT: Yes, I did. But we only had a tiny, tiny budget and even had to shoot during the pandemic. Therefore, it wasn’t easy to find an actor who was willing to go to Serbia for three weeks only to get tortured, attacked, buried alive, and bitten. Acting is still my day job, so it was really easy for me to just jump back and forth. And I enjoyed that part as well, although I was mostly covered in blood or dirt, or a combination of both, for those three weeks.
RD: You and the character of Arnaut share biographical similarities; you’re both of Serbian heritage living in other countries. Why did you decide to bring personal elements to the story?
BT: I have been asked more than once if this film is my autobiography! My response was – it’s a vampire movie! But yes, there are many similarities and I wanted to make it personal in a way. We shot in my dead grandfather’s house, we had access to the cemetery because my parents already have their gravestone there. My parents are still alive by the way, they just do that over there so everything is sorted when the time comes and someone dies. They then just add the date of death to the gravestone. I think it made the film even more authentic when I rooted it in reality and connected it with those personal details and people.
RD: What did shooting in Serbia bring to the film?
BT: It could have only been made there because the story is so connected to the real vampire cases and that village. I am based in London, and when we weren’t allowed to travel to Serbia during the pandemic we thought for a split second maybe adapting it to the UK somewhere. Rural Yorkshire or something like that, but it would not have worked at all. Authenticity was very important to me. And that side of Serbia hasn’t really been shown on screen that way, so it makes it very exotic to Western audiences. The rural landscape, those characterful faces, these strange habits, that’s what makes the film unique and adds to that creepy atmosphere.
RD: The film has a wonderful atmosphere, and reminded me of Peter Strickland’s Katalin Varga and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr. Were there any films or other influences you looked to while making the film?
BT: Thank you, that’s a huge compliment for me. Peter Strickland is one of my favourite directors and Dreyer’s Vampyr was definitely an influence for this. Also, other old school horror classics like Carnival of Souls or even The Twilight Zone. I always wanted to put focus on this specific eerie tone which creates a creepy and claustrophobic atmosphere. The entire story is very subjective, told from our central character’s point of view. Basically, the audience sees everything through his eyes, and that goes hand in hand with the camera and music and sound design. I was also aiming for a Kafkaesque feel and tone.
RD: The film has memorable moments of intense, unusual horror. Was this based on research, or all from your imagination?
BT: I would say most of my ideas come from nightmares and old paintings. That’s what I love about the horror genre – there is no limit to your imagination. The “intestinal crank” that appears in the film for example was from an old Dutch painting: it was a medieval torture method. The vampire attack on Arnaut was inspired by Bouguereau’s painting “Dante and Virgil”. I thought that twisted body position was so interesting and visually stunning, and it makes perfect sense as the neck is completely free for the bite. I tried to be inventive with how we created tension and horror in the film, and I wanted it to slowly get under your skin. And only then you realise that it’s too late, and there is no escape. I am also not a fan of CGI so all our effects were practical; I always find them much more effective.
RD: What were some of the challenges you faced and how did you handle them?
BT: We have the wonderful Eva Ras in our film. She is 82 years old now and a screen legend in the Balkans. She had a rich, prestigious career for over 60 years, and we were thrilled when she accepted the role of that scary granny.
Then she arrived on set and told me she never actually read the script. So, I was thinking, “Oh dear, does she know what she has to do here?!” Her first scene involved spitting that dark blood into Arnaut’s throat. But she was fantastic, fearless and had this childlike curiosity. She really went for it. Her licking the blood from her fingers wasn’t even in the script.
RD: Were there any unexpected occurrences on location that you worked into the film?
BT: We really struggled to find a church. They have a church in almost every village in that part of Serbia. It’s funny because religion and superstition shouldn’t really go hand in hand. But all those churches were overseen by the same bishop. He actually went to film school himself before he became a priest.
He wouldn’t allow us to shoot in any of the churches in our vicinity, saying something like the film is unholy, unethical, unreligious and should never be made. Which was surprising, as there is nothing bad about church or religion in our film. It’s the opposite: the priest is the only good character, and I wanted to show the beauty and opulence of Orthodox churches. Eventually, a little further away we found our great church location with all those fantastic hand painted icons.
RD: What advice would you give to first time filmmakers?
BT: Don’t steal any props and don’t have sex with extras! Apart from that, always work with what you have. When writing the script try to think of what you will have access to. Perhaps cool location or you know a good actor or something like that. Anything that could help to realise your script. Most likely you won’t have much money for your first film, so be inventive and realistic in what you can achieve with the resources you have. Surround yourself with likeminded people, your cast and crew should have the same passion for the project as you.
RD: What do you hope audiences will take from Vampir?
BT: I hope they will come and visit Serbia. I’m not sure this is the perfect movie for their tourist board, but I wanted to show the mysterious and darker side of Serbian mythology. A horror film that is set in a small country you don’t often see on screen in Western countries.
But above all, this is a horror film. We love horror films because we want to be scared. If I manage to send shivers down someone’s spine and give them nightmares, I am a very happy filmmaker!
RD: Will you stay in the horror genre for your next movie?
BT: Definitely. I am writing it just now. A dark slasher comedy…
Genre specialist Alarm Pictures will release Vampir on digital platforms in the US and UK on 16th May