For a film which so accurately depicts such raw, rundown communities, the paranormal elements meld surprisingly well with the realism, even when accentuated to be predominantly weird and gothic. Slabs of floating meat, cloaked, mystical figures and delirious nightmare scenes make Bloodlands resound like a lunatic’s fever dream instead of a slice of social commentary about Albanian culture and society. The subject of Balkan blood feuds have previously been tackled in fictional cinema in Joshua Marston’s The Forgiveness of Blood, among other more conventional Albanian features, but this is the first time it has been utilised for a horror film.
Father/ husband Skender (Gezim Rudi) and teenage son Artan (Emiljano Palili) work in a mountain village Butcher shop/ slaughterhouse but find it hard to provide for their financially struggling family. Mum/wife Shpresa (Suela Bako) stresses about their future dough woes while daughter Iliriana (Alesia Xhemalaj) dreams of greener pastures and hopes to one day move to Italy, against her father’s wishes. Soon the family’s flights of fancy and financial dilemmas fritter into irrelevance as scraps with a local clan take a turn for the terrifying and small scuffs bud into a supernatural fight for survival.
Stones are thrown through windows and the family get food poisoning then, with the sudden appearance of someone previously presumed dead, Skender senses something skew whiff and the family are forced to do battle with all manner of uncanny entities. These take the form of the aforementioned reaper-like figure, a cave lurking necromancer, feral children and various spectres who turn their everyday lives into a paranormal nightmare. Kastrissios captures impecunious lives with an unapologetic realism that governs the mood as equally as the otherworldly elements.
Even though the eerie dynamics are part based on Balkan Shtriga tradition/ mythology sadly, Bloodlands’ story seems a tad too frivolous, wavers into fanciful surrealism throughout the second act and fails to effectively resolve itself. Arcs and meanings spiral lost amongst the visual grandeur where a more commanding structure and stronger resolution could have made the film a sterner work. While sharp scares and creepy phantoms provide potent horror ticks, its flippant finale basically just bewilders.
Scenes set on farms and slaughterhouses encroach on and compliment the dream-like atmosphere. Shots of rubbish, gravel and chick kicking hens blend beautifully with the monsters but the narrative is notably slack. Kastrissios’ film is a wonder to watch with some of the most sublime imagery and fascinating subject matters to grace the screens of this year’s FrightFest but it remains an ultimately baffling experience as well as a visually striking one.