Also known as She-Butterfly and The Moth (and indeed Лептирица in the original Serbian cyrillic), Leptirica (“Butterfly”) is a 1973 Yugoslavian horror TV movie based on the story After Ninety Years (1880) written by Serbian writer Milovan Glišić.
Leptirica was the first Serbian horror film. It was filmed in the village of Zelinje, close to the city Zvornik.
Set in a poor, rural village, possibly yesterday, possibly in the 19th Century, an old flour miller is murdered at his rickety mill at night. His fellow superstitious villagers suspect foul play, the old man bearing bite marks and decide their best bet is to employ another miller, lest one of them suffer the same fate.
Enter Strahinja (Petar Božović), even poorer than the rest of them and with the added problem of being unable to gain the blessing of his beloved girlfriend’s father (Radojka (Mirjana Nikolić) and Živan (Slobodan Perović) respectively), for her hand in marriage. Determined to impress him, he accepts the dubious offer.
Spending the night in the mill, he too is visited by the nocturnal beast, surviving by falling through a shaft and being buried beneath mounds of flour. Emerging in the morning, he informs the villagers of the creature’s name, ‘Sava Savanović’, a famous vampire in Slavic folklore, killing and drinking the blood of the millers when they came to mill their grains.
The villagers set off to question a local (extremely deaf) old woman whom they believe may hold the answer as to how to kill Sava. After much shouting she directs them to a far-off ditch near an elm tree where she believes his grave to be; the hapless villagers, led by an ineffective priest in full garb, go to and fro, realising they need a stallion, holy water and a stake to cleanse the grave.
Eventually locating it, the smash the coffin only for a butterfly (the spirit of the vampire) to flitter out, evading their clutches and disappearing out of sight. Thinking they are free of their nighttime threat, the villagers help to free Radojka from her father’s clutches and facilitate the wedding of the young couple. Sadly for Strahinja, a nasty surprise awaits him on his wedding night.
Leptirica is full of all the trappings of Eastern European and Slavic folklore; stick-in-the-mud fathers, love-struck youngsters and time-old monsters romping around in the forests. Sava Savanović works well, immediately recognisable as a vampire but accompanied in his appearances by oddly disturbing owl hoots and covered in black grime, highlighting the white feral nails and teeth.
Sticking closely to the 1880 novel by Milovan Glišić, After 90 Years, written only seventeen years after Bram Stoker‘s Dracula, there are some genuinely sinister moments, heightened by the alien setting and unfamiliar actors, all of whom were professional, which is evident throughout.
Although the ‘surprise’ ending is telegraphed very early in the film, there is something satisfying about it behaving like a traditional folk tale, the goodies, the baddies and the futility of interfering in the ways of the world Man is destined not to understand, all present and correct.
The comedic elements are used judiciously so that when night does fall the dread is that much keener. There is no attempt to titillate the viewer, only to scare them, something which is certainly achieved, the monster of the piece being both unique in appearance and habit.
When first shown on Yugoslav television in the 1970’s, it was reported that a man died of fright whilst watching. Whether true or not, the film remains unreleased officially in any language, the grainy versions available to watch somehow making the tale even more spooky.
Daz Lawrence, Horrorpedia
‘Leptirica isn’t particularly well-made or well-acted, has an unsteady tone (comedy elements often seem forced or completely out of place) and it really lacks visual punch, though it’s watchable, has a few faintly eerie moments and the country setting provides an interesting backdrop to the action. The biggest problem is that the whole thing is just too predictable.’ Bloody Pit of Horror