Karlovy Vary 2016: The Noonday Witch review

Shimmering corn fields and the blazing midday sun may not seem like natural environs for spooky supernatural horror, but Jiří Sádek's The Noonday Witch employs them to suitably disconcerting effect. With a tinge of Philip Ridley's The Reflecting Skin, it re-purposes a traditional Slavonic folktale - popularised both as a poem by Karel Erben and a symphonic ballad by Antonin Dvořák - into the conventions of modern horror. The original tale is laden with psychological potential and Sádek and his collaborators, Michal Samir and Matej Chulpacek, have channelled that into a very contemporary film steeped in dread but ultimately concerned with the twisting of grief and maternal anxiety.

The original tale told of a mother who invoked the Noonday Witch to take away her young son as a means of punishment. When the clock struck twelve, however, the witch actually materialised and in a desperate attempt to keep her son safe, the woman smothered him. A version of this woman is effectively placed into a rural Czech town in the film, not as the protagonist, but as the withered old crone whose tragedy marks the place's shared history. Arriving into this milieu is Eliska (Anna Geislerová) who brings her young daughter (Karolina Lipowská) there to start afresh in her husband Tomás' home town. His absence is unexplained, but her daughter's constant questioning of when he will join them places great emotional strain on Eliska.

That strain is echoed by the weather, a heatwave parching both the people and the land while Eliska keeps her secrets and tries to endure. This familial strife is the catalyst for all of the events of The Noonday Witch, which is as much a drama about the gnarled fingers of deceit and frustration as it is those of a supernatural threat. That said, Sádek still employs nighttime jump scares to keep the genre fans placated but the tension is far more effective during uneasy Straw Dogs-like moments with local men, terse exchanges between mother and daughter, and conversations in which the truth dare not be spoken.

The witch herself, perhaps more coping mechanism than spectral threat, has more than a hint of The Babadook about her nature, and young actress Lipowská gives nothing away as to how much of her mother's escalating fears she also shares - she seems more scared of her mother than anyone else. Despite a heart-stopping finale, for Eliska, the real demon is within and it's this conflict that powers The Noonday Witch, the genre trappings feel more decorative than imperative.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson


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