Across the Forest: Tales from Transylvania, 2009.
Directed by Justin Blair and Matthew Vincent.
Two American filmmakers journey to the mountains of Transylvania, where ancient beliefs in the supernatural can still be found.
“I read that every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool,” states Jonathan Harker as he journey’s towards the Romanian region of Transylvania in Bram Stoker’s classic tale Dracula. As a child I was fascinated by the Transylvania myth… I genuinely believed it was a cursed place, where the sun never fully rose, werewolves roamed the forest and the peasant population lived in constant fear of bloodthirsty vampires inhabiting its numerous gothic castles. Of course that impression was shaped by Stoker’s depiction along with Hammer’s series of horrors – and, perhaps more so, Scooby Doo and the Reluctant Werewolf – but as Justin Blair and Matthew Vincent have proved with their documentary Across the Forest, my infant imagination was not entirely off the mark.
Following in Harker’s footsteps more than a century after Stoker first took readers on a fantastic journey into the unknown, the two American filmmakers travelled deep into rural Romania to catalogue a dying culture and folklore that will soon be lost to history. Invited into the homes of Transylvanian villagers to discuss their archaic supernatural beliefs and customs, Blair and Vincent have put together a fascinating collection of interviews that really seems to cover almost every superstition imaginable. Across the Forest: Tales from Transylvania delivers just that, eschewing the use of dramatised reconstructions to focus on the villagers and their tales of alchemy, necromancy, strigoi (the undead), vârcolac (werewolves), dwarves, devils and forest spirits, not to mention the dreaded “Old Hag of Tuesday Night”, who must surely be a contender for the best-named spectre of all-time.
Avoiding judgement or analysis in order to provide an authentic insight into their beliefs, the filmmakers allow the villagers to tell their stories in full, with only the occasional use of striking hand-drawn illustrations used to support the bizarre – and often macabre – recollections. Many of the stories are legends passed down through the generations (or events that happened to a cousin of a cousin), but the true highlights are the first-hand accounts; take for instance one interviewee, an elderly woman who details an incident when her neighbour had apparently returned from the dead as a strigoi during her funeral preparations. Remembering a legend from a Moldovan boy, the woman recalls how she went on to carry out a ritual that basically involved staking the neighbour’s corpse, with the cadaver then sneering at her in response.
As it quickly becomes apparent during the documentary, these beliefs in ancient folk tales and legends are dying out as globalisation comes to the tiny rural villages of Romania. Campfire stories and cautionary tales have made way for television and other forms of entertainment, and sadly the sun will soon rise on Transylvania once and for all. Fortunately, Across the Forest does a good job of documenting them and should prove interesting viewing for anyone who has ever been enchanted by the myth of Transylvania, that “cursed land, where the devil and his children still walk with earthly feet!”
For more information or to order Across the Forest, visit the official site.