The Movie Waffler New Release Review - THE DEVIL’S BATH | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - THE DEVIL’S BATH

The Devil's Bath review
In 1750 Austria, an unhappily married woman harbours violent thoughts about escaping her husband.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala

Starring: Anja Plaschg, David Scheid, Maria Hofstätter

The Devil's Bath poster

The sound of a baby crying is a pagan resonance, a cutting disharmony which seems to reach from beyond the veil to claw into your ears before burrowing down into both heart and soul with ceaseless, primal urgency. Programmed to respond to the clamouring vulnerability, to us the noise feels like a punishment. Your friends with new-borns tell you about sleepless nights with gormless expectations of sympathy. Worse, you hear about mothers with post-natal depression driven further into the punitive dark by this very soundtrack, an unending whine which crushes out all other sounds and rationality. The Devil's Bath opens with such a wail, along with an attendant close-up of an infant crying upon a forest floor. It's an image of natural cruelty which sets the tone for this abrasively grim retelling of an 18th century Europe occurrence, wherein things will only get painstakingly bleaker. Thankfully - because, no matter what else, this noise needs to stop - a woman picks the child up from the bracken. Her ease with holding the baby suggests she may be its mother, but the kid doesn't stop crying. Not as she walks soothingly with it to the top of a crashing waterfall. And not as she pelts the kid over the side to be dashed upon the rocks and rushing water below. As she admits her crime to the authorities, there is at least silence.

The Devil's Bath review

Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala's folk horror (a pure example of the genre, in which horror is exclusively generated by "folk"), is predicated upon the phenomena of "suicide by proxy"; a gloomy theological loophole where people at odds with existence enact a capital crime in order to be executed instead of taking their own lives, with all the consequent damnation suicide supposedly entails. In its blunt opening, The Devil's Bath links the phenomena  explicitly with motherhood and societal expectations of women (Wikipedia duly informs that IRL the "crime was committed predominantly by women"). We then pick up with Agnes (Anja Plaschg, playing a fictionalised version of the historical Eva Lizlfellnerin), an Austrian peasant who is newlywed. With sly hilarity, the marriage is shown to be empty from the off, with the ominous indication of a lifetime's anti-climax as hubby Wolf (David Scheid) shows Agnes the humble living arrangements that she has signed up for. In the marital cot later, Agnes, sweetly nervous and excited, is ordered to turn around as Wolf, instead of consummating the union, masturbates over her backside. Earlier on, Agnes spotted him confessing ostensibly fraternal love to a male friend, telling him how good looking he is etc, in that poignantly chummy manner of the deeply repressed...

Perhaps the name of Anges's husband is a furtively intertextual nod, as the milieu of The Devil's Bath is the treacherous rustic of Angela Carters 'The Bloody Chamber': "cold; tempest; wild beasts in the forest. It is a hard life." Wedding jovialities involve an unpleasant game of blind man's bluff, where participants wield a scythe against the ground until the blade decimates a live cockerel. Fishing is an immersive, clumsy wholesale capture and live evisceration of squirming shoals. This is a world where cruelty is an everyday fundamental, a reeking pastoral setting which is both fecund and faecal: in one moment of shocking silliness, we see a happy Agnes actually spray goat's milk into her mouth straight from the doe's tit(!). And that suicidal mother in the opening? Her beheaded corpse rots at the top of the waterfall as an abiding example to all. The villagers take trinkets from the body - a toe, perhaps - as a charm. Including Agnes, who chops a finger and places it beneath the mattress in the hope that it will kickstart Wolf's apparently wayward libido. Superstition reigns within a context where magic and God are accepted as real, but homosexuality is unthinkably taboo.

The Devil's Bath review

And so, as a second act trigger, Wolf's handsome mate Luke (Lukas Walcher) mysteriously takes his own life. The body is immediately and raucously carted off (literally carted off) by braying men, as if the damnation is catching. You wonder how much misery our heteronormative expectations promulgate, even today; this sick and boring idea that marriage, children, with men and women restricted into being certain archetypes, is something aspirational, that it's "normal." The Devil's Bath also questions the assumption with Agnes desperate for a child, her repeated failure to conceive (perhaps she doesn't know what is meant to happen - she has no maternal figure to guide her, after all, just a witchy stepmother via the folkloric mien) developing into psychosis: "I have poisoned everything with my mad thoughts’," she bemoans.

The Devil's Bath review

Throughout The Devil's Bath there is a motif of being blindfolded, a symbol of being trapped and unable to envision the veracity of one's surroundings: a concise metaphor for the suicidal mindset. In the final third of the film, we focus on Agnes's downward spiral (heralded by a splash of menses as she comes on while working in the field: we witness maggots immediately churn in the blood. Yeah, it can be a bit much). I don't know about you, but it seems to me that the gradually deteriorating sanity of a woman has become a customary trope in horror over the last decade. In certain situations, it feels like an undermining correction to the Final Girl: a representation of weakness linked to hysteria... Obviously that isn't the case here, where the depiction is not only earned but has a responsibility to the historical context, too. Nonetheless, the third act becomes conventional of this inevitable archetype, and, after the violent poetry of previous scenes, we are left to watch yet another woman going mad. It's an unfair judgement to level at The Devil's Bath because its criticism of patriarchy is reflective of actual events, and the narrative sympathetically essays the psychology of Agnes with depth and careful detail. In its emotional verisimilitude, we are reminded of how this expressive genre is uniquely equipped to translate and examine the real-life horrors of herstory.

The Devil's Bath is on Shudder from June 28th.

2024 movie reviews