International Cinema: Laurin (1989) - Reviewed

Surreal atmospheric gothic period horror, whether aggressive or subtle in approach, remains one of my personal favorite and least explored subgenres in film.  Though there’s been a resurgence of interest recently in period horror with the release of films like The Witch and the re-release of the 1950s set gothic thriller The Reflecting Skin and Twilight Time’s reissue of Dragonwyck, the gothic period piece as horror subgenre remains somewhat overlooked and only now seems to be getting the attention it deserves. 

One film which remains both under the radar outside of dedicated world cinema circles and unreleased outside of West Germany is the Bavarian Award winning 1989 clandestine and subtly creepy child-horror fairy tale film Laurin which only until recently was available in faded and dark European DVD transfers.  Thanks to the efforts of Bildstörung who have given the overlooked gem a 2K digital restoration, this rarely seen 19th century Bavarian set crossbreed between F.W. Murnau, Peter Weir, Jaromil Jireš, Dario Argento and even a hint of Lucio Fulci is now available to be rediscovered by adventurous cinephiles around the world over!

Part dreamy coming-of-age fairy tale ala Picnic at Hanging Rock and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, part serial child murder thriller ala Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling, the directorial debut of Robert Sigl tells the story of the titular nine-year-old little girl (played by Dora Szinetar) living with her parents and grandmother in a quiet Bavarian harbor.  Little Laurin, in the wake of her mother’s untimely death as her Sailor father leaves her in the care of her crippled and drunk grandmother,  finds herself plagued by increasingly surreal and haunting visions of a well-dressed man suited in black, a threatening black dog and an archaic crumbling castle.  Rapidly the film plunges the viewer into Laurin’s psyche as she tries to understand her strange premonitions as fellow friends and classmates begin to vanish without a trace .

Save for some momentary scenes of violence, Laurin moves at a methodically slow and quiet pace, rarely breaking out into shrieks except when necessary.  Where other thrillers tend towards loud jump scares or fast paced chase sequences, Laurin deliberately takes it’s time to allow for the rich and often spooky turn-of-the-century gothic atmosphere to soak in a mood of murky unease.  Though this period horror thriller doesn’t erupt into overt scares, the overall mood the film’s creepy atmosphere leaves the viewer with is harder to shake than most conventional thrillers.  Aided by a soft electronic score by Hans Jansen and Jacques Zwart which tend to date the film somewhat coupled with scenic cinematography of the Bavarian countryside by Nyika Jancso, Laurin proves to be a sumptuous costumed thriller touching on adolescent fears of budding sexuality, stranger dangers, the gulf between faith vs. superstition and the loosely hanging thread of an unfinished business ghost story. 

Laurin may be underwhelming when compared to the films it bears the most in common with, lacking the mysterious punch of Weir’s undisputed classic and eventually boiling down to familiar genre conventions in the third act.  But as a slice of European period horror which intentionally flirts with the supernatural, the clairvoyant and the premonitory without explicitly declaring any of the notions to be true, Laurin is a nice and oddly affecting little historically set number which won’t break the mold but will leave you with an unsettled feeling gothic horror films rarely strive for anymore.  

- Andrew Kotwicki