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Robert Sigl was about 25 when he started making Laurin (aka Laurin: A Journey into Death), his remarkably atmospheric feature debut. It did well at the festivals when it came out in 1989, and Sigl picked up a rake of awards. More personal movies should have followed. But since the distinctive 1994 TV mini-series Stella Stellaris, Sigl seems to have been content to scratch the idiosyncratic itch with a series of occasional shorts; to keep the wolves at bay he’s done gun-for-hire work on German TV.

Atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere is what Laurin is about, a Hammer horror meets Mario Bava/Dario Argento affair full of red-haired women, crimson lipstick, creepy churchyards, rolling mists, an ominous castle, lanterns glowing orange in the night, barking dogs, mysterious black-clad gents and a child murderer on the loose.

The score does something similar – hints of industrial noise, moans and whispers, a plaintive single woodwind instrument parping away. Quite the mix, very evocative.

It’s also the coming-of-age story of Laurin (Dóra Szinetár), a pretty kid in a 19th-century German village whose mother dies early on at the hand of a mystery killer, whose father is away at sea and so is brought up by her lopsided wheelchair-using grandmother Olga (Hédi Temassy). Laurin has premonitions, possibly spirit-guided to her by her dead mother. She sees dead people. Or more precisely people who are about to die, like the gypsy boy the child murderer kills as the film opens. Later, she starts to worry about her friend, Stefan (Barnabás Tóth), the speccy kid at school who is picked on by the other kids, but favoured by new school teacher Van Rees (Károly Eperjes).

There is a hint of paedophile attraction in the story but really Sigl is more interested in getting all the castellated, turreted elements onto the screen. This is an extravagantly gothic movie, atmospherically lit and shot by DP Nyika Jancsó. The cast is good, though having what’s largely a Hungarian cast speaking in either English (mostly) or German (the odd person) means there’s the odd stilted moment when an actor is so wrapped up getting their head around the language that nuance goes out the window.

Laurin's grandmother
Laurin’s grandmother

It’s not particularly important, however, since what people say isn’t the prime driver of this film. Which gives it an edge over a lot of Hammer films, where too much is said. Nor is there as much running around as you get in Hammer, and Sigl also resists the urge to have the breasts of comely wenches spilling out over their tops.

Sigl’s focus on a young girl is also distinctive and he’s got a good star in Szinetár, who is maybe 12 when this was made and who Sigl manipulates with lighting effects and maybe a hint of make-up so she is sometimes quite knowingly mature, other times a fragile child.

There is no Wikipedia page for this film (as I write), which is odd considering the absolute nonsense which does get its own page there. There surely will be more fans of this richly visual feast of a horror movie once the guys at Second Run DVD, curators of all sorts of excellent but neglected Euro-arthouse exotica, have released their new high-def region-free Blu-ray version in April 2023. Quickly looking at their press release, I see they namecheck Bava and Argento too, but then go on to suggest an evocation of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (I’m not entirely convinced but maybe) and The Company of Wolves (yes, definitely).

In among the extras on the Blu-ray are interviews with Szinetár, Tóth and Director of Photography Jancsó but there’s no mention of one with Sigl, though he did approve the HD transfer. I’ll have to check it out. And there’s mention of a “German language version”. Where there two, one in English, one in German? Might explain a few things. Again, further exploration required.

Laurin – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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