Director:  Tereza Nvotová
Screenplay:  Tereza Nvotová
Starring: Natália Germáni, Eva Mores,Juliana Olhová
Year: 2022
Country: Slovakia, Czech Republic
BBFC Certification: 18
Duration: 106 mins

Official Summary: Following her 2017 debut feature Filthy, writer and director Tereza Nvotová returns with a spellbinding contemporary drama that expertly blends psychological and supernatural horror to explore the intersections of misogyny and religious zealotry. Nvotová has created a captivating cinematic experience which has wowed audiences and critics alike on the international festival circuit, including Locarno where it won the Golden Leopard – Filmmakers of the Present award. Beguiling and atmospheric, Nightsiren is a superb effort from one of the most exciting new voices in cinema. The Blu-ray includes a new commentary and video essays, and comes with a reversible sleeve, fold out poster, and illustrated collector’s booklet.

There’s a certain kind of film that makes it through the long hard slog that any independent film has to go through that the more jaded film fans can spot a mile off. The films often do well on the festival circuit, maybe even win awards, but then when it comes to wider public distribution, they are poorly served by distributors and outlets demanding the film slot neatly into marketable genres, which then prejudice the buying audience into expecting something the film is not. While the remarkable sophomore fiction feature Nightsiren from Slovakian writer-director Tereza Nvotová is being pitched at the horror market, specifically as a piece of folk-horror (a term much bandied about of late, getting its own documentary and boutique label boxset), it’s arguably a more complex, more culturally unusual piece than the categorisation used to sell discs. It deserves to find a wider audience open to experimental oddities and unusual uses of genre by filmmakers interested in reflecting their own culture through the prismatic lens of said genre.

Is this folk horror? Well, it has a rural setting, with an estranged member of the community returning to deal with her mother’s passing, who eschews local superstitions in favour of the urban life and science-based profession she has become used to. There are accusations of witchcraft, suspicious derision of anyone not perceived as ‘normal’ – for which read ‘traditional’, ‘Christian’ and ‘patriarchal’ – and strange insinuations and allegations all round. But Nvotová is an experienced director of documentaries, and she’s arguably more interested in the people and their world in this remote mountainous village. There are few characters who evoke sympathy outside of the two leads, estranged nurse Šarlota (Natália Germáni) and her new friend, rebellious herbalist Mira (Eva Mores). The older women of the village are all prejudiced against them for one superstitious reason or another, even standing by their utterly hideous men as the two try and stall some of the terrible behaviour of the latter. The few children we see are struggling to still hang on to some sense of innocence as the adults around them carry on in ways that destroy it too early. The combination of Christian and pagan superstitions with the bizarre familial relationships gives an air of mass delusion, one which starts to drag in Šarlota despite her best efforts.

This first third of the film is couched in earth/wood tones, steely blues contrasting with the orange of fires, lights, and gunshots. Natural lighting and documentary techniques applied to fiction provide immediacy, putting the viewer right there with Šarlota, but also allowing for unsettling details to accumulate.  The naturalistic audio is used carefully, with familiar sounds made unfamiliar then recognisable again, while speech in hushed tones is contrasted with screams and yells. Šarlota to begin with armours herself with outdoor clothing and a runner’s headlamp, giving her protagonist light, stature, visibility, and confidence. This will not last, however; if this were a traditional horror she would seem to be our ‘final girl’, except this is not that kind of slavish genre piece. Sharp editing looping flashbacks in with the present contrasts with the book-style chaptering, complete with title cards, that force momentary pauses – fades to and from serving a purpose other than placement for ad breaks, letting the audience breathe amidst the tensions and discomfort. All the hallmarks of a talented, cine-literate creator are here, masterfully controlling the pace, accelerating out of the initial slow burn with strange local celebrations, the slaughter of a goose for cooking that seems to come back to life after Šarlota’s touch, and auspicious appearances of a white snake linked to Mira and a white wolf linked to Šarlota, all set against the backdrop of misty mountains, hidden caves and liminal forests. Revelations of both the women’s pasts come to light, their futures beginning to intertwine around those pasts. 

And then everything kicks off. Hallucinatory midnight interludes featuring bioluminescent orgies and ritualistic, cult-like nude interactions give way to daytime conflicts and nighttime tragedies, the verbal barbs and external toughness of the two women proving little match for petrified misogynists (men and women alike) with guns, knives and the utterly misguided folly that comes from unshakeable self-belief in the face of all facts to the contrary. Everything escalates, and we are in serious doubt as to the outcome. And even when the credits roll, uncertainty reigns. It has been quite a while since my opinion of a film formed in the first third of a film has changed so much by its end, for the better; a fine reminder to enjoy a film for what it actually is, instead of what it is sold or marketed as.

Nightsiren is released by Arrow Films on Region B Blu-ray and their own streaming service from 03/06/2024. Video and audio on the former are nigh on perfect as to be expected for a recent film, and although a UHD might handle the naturalistic lighting and blacks better, this master’s handling of mists, flames, smoke and more is fantastic.  The 5.1 audio track is also very naturalistic except for the spooky electronic soundtrack (by French genre stalwart ROB and Slovakian-born London based electronica artist Pjoni), which enhances the moods often through outer channels while the dialogue rests in the centre (I did not check the 2.0 track). Arrow have provided a select set of extras indeed:

  • A new commentary from filmmaker and editor of Diabolique magazine Kat Ellinger;
  • New video essays from film critic and author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (Witches and Sisterhood) and film critic/festival programmer Justine Smith (Taboo);
  • Reversible sleeve & double-sided foldout poster featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Beth Morris;
  • Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Anton Bitel, Cerise Howard and Alexandra West.

While anyone with even a passing interest in horror will be very familiar with the various critics providing context, for newcomers they can expect educated, informed, intelligent discourse and discussion drawing on the film itself, its production and personnel, and the broader historical, psychological and semiotic contexts as they pertain. In short, you’re getting world-class university-level teaching for less than the price of textbook! Thank you Arrow! The only lack felt through these is the absence of the writer-director and cast themselves; it would be very interesting to hear from them about the shoot itself, performing the characters and their own perception of their cultural context.

Where to watch Nightsiren
Nightsiren (Svetlonoc) - Arrow Films
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