The Movie Waffler New Release Review - NIGHTSIREN | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - NIGHTSIREN

Nightsiren review
Returning to the village she fled as a child, a young woman is suspected of practicing witchcraft.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Tereza Nvotová

Starring: Natalia Germani, Eva Mores, Juliana Oľhová, Zuzana Konečná, Marek Geišberg

Nightsiren poster

Angry villagers turning on women they believe to be witches. Naked nymphs writhing around bonfires. Women communing with snakes and wolves. An outsider searching for answers in a tight-knit rural community where superstition not only persists, but governs. Many of the tropes of folk-horror are present in Tereza Nvotová's Nightsiren, but by weaving genre cliches into the fabric of real life shibboleths held by the people of rural Slovakia, the director (collaborating with co-writer Barbora Namerova) has created a film that will feel simultaneously familiar to horror fans yet fresh to most western eyes.

Nightsiren review

It's to a small hamlet in rural Slovakia that twentysomething Sarlota (Natalia Germani) returns, having received a letter from the town's mayor informing her that she has inherited her late mother's property. A prologue details how Sarlota fled the village as a child after accidentally causing her little sister Tamara to fall to her death from a clifftop. Returning to a place fraught with traumatic memories, Sarlota finds her mother's home has been burnt to the ground, and so she decides to stay in a now empty neighbouring cabin once occupied by Otyla (Iva Bittová), a woman believed to be a witch by the villagers.

As is always the case in folk-horror movies of this nature, Sarlota is met with hostility by the locals, especially when they hear she's staying in Otyla's home. The one person who rejects such superstition is Mira (Eva Mores), a free-spirited young woman who likes to lounge naked in the moonlight ("The sun burns, but not the moon," is her reasoning. Fair enough). Mira befriends Sarlota and the two share what initially seems like a homoerotic bond, but morphs into something else later. Said bond draws unwanted attention from the locals, who view the women's friendship with suspicion, and Sarlota and Mira soon find themselves branded as witches.

Nightsiren review

The rise of feminism in the last few decades has given way to a reevaluation of the concept of witchcraft. I don't think it's any coincidence that the 1960s saw both the rise of bra-burning and a newfound embracing of the occult in the western world. To identify as a witch is to dare to poke the patriarchal bear, to embrace everything about femininity that makes men uncomfortable. As such it's no longer acceptable to portray witches as the stereotypical cackling hag villains of past horror films, as to do so is to lend credence to the claims of those men who persecuted them in times past. In recent years governments have even seen fit to issue public apologies for the burning of "witches." This puts horror filmmakers in a bit of a spot. Even those who wish to portray witchcraft in a positive light are treading problematic ground, because to even suggest that witches possess supernatural powers is to repeat the claims of the murderous fanatics of old.

Nvotová tries to get around this by keeping the supernatural element of her film ambiguous, but in doing so she has created a film that is often frustrating in its lack of commitment to either fantasy or reality. There are moments that imply Sarlota is in possession of occult powers, and flashbacks do a little more than simply suggest Otyla had such abilities. When the closing credits roll you're left with a lot of unanswered questions that make you wonder if Nvotová is a wilfully unreliable narrator or simply a sloppy storyteller.

Nightsiren review

The setting of the misty valleys of Slovakia fits this subject matter like a teenage goth girl's black lace glove, and the landscape is captured with a beguiling volatility by cinematographer Federico Cesca. The movie's most arresting sequence is a hallucination (?) that sees Sarlota walk through a forest filled with naked writhing women coated in day-glo body paint as though they were the dancers in a James Bond title sequence. But the visual mood isn't matched by the storytelling, which too often relies on characters revealing relevant information through dialogue whenever it becomes necessary to advance the story. Much of the narrative is predicated on obfuscating a twist that no amount of fog can shroud from an alert viewer. We know how a movie like this will climax, but Nightsiren doesn't build up to its harrowing denouement so much as decide to arbitrarily drop it once it realises there are only 20 minutes left to go.

For all its fantastical elements, the most disturbing scene in Nightsiren is taken from reality, as Sarlota and Mira find themselves subjected to the Slovak tradition of "Easter whipping," a custom that sees women soaked in water and whipped by men. It's no longer acceptable to burn women at the stake, but cultures have found ways to persist with their humiliation.

Nightsiren is on Arrow Player from June 3rd.

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