It is February and the 12th (and last!) official Women in Horror Month. So it was a perfect reason to head to Germany (virtually at least) to the Final Girls Berlin Festival. The Festival showcases horror cinema that’s directed, written, or produced by women and non-binary filmmakers. The organisers state “We’ve seen more than enough representations of women as beautified victims and constructions of male fantasies or anxieties, and are working towards the primacy of women as subjects and storytellers in horror. ”
The Final Girls Berlin Festival boasted an impressive shorts programme that encompassed a variety of subjects including those that pose a real life threat to women including demands of social media (Kelly’s Last Review), streaming sites (Fragile.com),and harassment and sexual assault (Rong).
I grabbed the opportunity to catch Jill “Sixx” Gevargizian’s stunning debut The Stylist again after watching it initially at FrightFest last October. Set in Kansas City and revolving around seemingly shy yet skilful hair stylist Claire, (Najarra Townsend) only to discover her innate ability to allow people to open up to her but also her dark drive to murder and scalp women in an attempt to covet their lives. You can read a more detailed review here. Another Love Horror favourite – 12 Hour Shift – also featured, giving German audiences the opportunity to watch Brea Grant’s darkly comic and retro romp into the black market world of organ trafficking. See our review here.
However – given the United Kingdom is in the midst of its third lockdown – it was the films that centred around isolation that really piqued my interest.
Fellwechselzeit/ The Time of Moulting (2020)
In a small town in 1970s West Germany, Stephanie is an intelligent and lively child living an insular life with her parents. Neither she nor her parents have contact with others, and she falls into a symbiotic relationship with her mentally unstable mother Sybille who is largely bedridden by an unspecified illness. Stephanie’s father offers neither support, love, nor normalcy. Stephanie withdraws more and more into herself and the passing years bring only ageing, but no future with them. Stephanie flees early from her life’s narrowness and hopelessness into an inner world of dark fantasies.
Director Sabrina Mertens background in documentary film-making is evident in The Time of Moulting which is described as a “still life in fifty-seven pictures”. We slowly and methodically move from the innocent joy of Stephanie reading Hansel & Gretel with her mum to the existentialist dread that leads to self-mutilation, and the contemplation of either suicide or murder to escape.
The use of a single location is brilliantly done. At first, the farm seems an idyllic mid century home. The yellow hues of the décor and sunshine as Stephanie plays outside indicate a largely carefree existence – even if her mother refuses to allow her to play with children her own age and allows her to stay home from school when she complains of bullying. Over time, the clutter that builds up in the house comes along with the lack of light from the permanently drawn curtains reflects a teenage Stephanie’s inner world of chaos, neglect and darkness.
Stephanie as a character was refreshing. Here is a girl who has developed away from the patriarchal gaze of society. As a young child her fascination with the macabre is evident as she tortures slugs and relishes the feel of raw meat produced at the family farm. As an older teen, Stephanie expresses unfettered natural instincts such as anger when she doesn’t get her way, paints torture scenes, and indulges in masturbation – themes that are rarely portrayed in films that feature women. Stephanie moves and dresses in a way that is convenient to her, rather than how a teenage girl would normally be expected to behave. These subtle, stripped down, differences in the way young women are portrayed are why it is so important that we have more women writers and directors. Actors Zelda Espenschied and Miriam Schiweck, were absolutely flawless in their performance of Stephanie. Spellbinding cinematography and natural yet compelling performances of the supporting cast meant that the audience were always focussed on Stephanie’s journey.
The Time of Moulting is a heavily atmospheric and harrowing portrait of the ways in which an oppressive family dynamics can influence and infect a young person where the darkness pervades the soul in an absence of light.
I am somewhat conflicted on my views of The Time of Moulting. Despite only being 70 minutes long – it is a painfully slow watch. On one hand I wanted to see a more climactic conclusion to the story arc – a visceral culmination of the events that unfolded in the seventy minutes of film. On the other, we are being given a snapshot of a developing psychopath. We are left with a sense of dread as to what could happen next – and therein lies the films brilliance.
Buio a.k.a Darkness (2019)
17 year old Stella (Denise Tantucci) looks after adolescent Luce (Gaia Bocci) and little Aria (Olimpia Tosatto), in a house with no natural light, and under the protective care of their father. He goes out looking for food, while Stella schools the others and maintains the home. The girls go nowhere: their father tells them that since the apocalypse, the sun is too strong for women, and the world is too dangerous for them to survive outside. The girls live simple lives, with basic food and clothes and joy gleaned from 1980’s aerobics videos. The girls mother (Elettra Mallaby) is only seen in dreamlike flashbacks, gone from the family when the girls were much younger, and apparently before the apocalypse.
Their father suppresses any desire that the girls have to wander outside, climbing through the plastic shield that covers the home, wearing a gas mask and telling of killing three men to bring the family food. Stella begins to question her fathers assertions when she is initially is forced to look for Aria who has wandered outside. The girls relationship with their father is odd and makes for uncomfortable viewing. Actor Valerio Binasco performs this role well, demonstrating the volatile and abusive nature of this father figure by unpredictably flitting between loving, strict, religious, violent, sexual and absent. The story takes a turn when their Father goes missing and Stella leaves the confines of the family home to search for food – her exploration of the outside world becoming increasingly addictive.
Darkness has an excellent premise and is a not-so-subtle exploration of how patriarchal oppression can lead to internalised misogyny. The girls do not question their father – even when it is blatantly obvious that he has been abusing them. “The sun is healing” Stella announces to her siblings rather than “Dad lied”. Whilst the turn of events from the first to second act may be predicable, strong performances and excellent direction by Emanuela Rossi make for a compelling watch.
However, Darkness starts to grate on your nerves by the midway point. There is a cringeworthy scene where Stella tries to imitate the local teens breakdancing routine. I rolled my eyes when Stella went into shop to buy ‘normal’ clothes to fit in with others, came out wearing a face full of make-up and went to join her crush who basically invited her to a weekend away before even asking her name. These scenes were depicted as moments of freedom and empowerment despite being the exact opposite – although that maybe the point Rossi was trying to make.
Personally, I feel Darkness would have really driven the (feminist) point home if had ended at the final encounter between Stella and her Father. This would have turned the film into a rather brilliant horror tragedy. However, the redemptive ending was befitting of a lacklustre horror aimed at teens, rather than a genre audience who would have been painfully aware of the risks posed to three young women who were woefully underprepared for life in the real world. Disappointing, given this film and its premise really held my attention and had been immensely enjoyable to the midway point.