I was viscerally spellbound – hairs on end, eyes wide, mouth agog – by Macedonian-Australian writer/director Goran Stolevski’s feature film debut: a shockingly great horror movie that cleverly differentiates itself from umpteen other productions involving witches and forests visited by the damned. Yet, part of me also wanted to put on my sports shoes and run for the hills, to obtain as much distance as possible between myself and the screen, in the hope that the awful energy leaking from it would stop coursing through my system.
In narrative beats, the film – an Australian, UK and Serbian co-production – resembles a dark fairytale or folklore, crafted with the air of an uncompromising artist refusing to bow to outside pressures. Set in and around a Macedonian village in the 19th century, its best-known actor is Noomi Rapace (most famous as goth hacker Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) but there’s no lead star, on account of the protagonist being a shapeshifting entity assuming various bodies.
The core genius of You Won’t Be Alone is that it unfolds from the point-of-view of this malevolent force, her/its perspective informing everything with nary a cauldron or crooked hat in sight. The film reminded me, in a funny way, of the behaviour of the angels in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, who joined the realm of us mortals. If Wenders’ ethereal masterpiece descended from heaven, Stolevski’s comes from the other place, and leaves an imprint that could never be dismissed as the spoils of a midnight movie.
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It’s visually interesting from the start, presented in tight aspect ratio and opening with a pretty outdoors shot with a cat in the foreground. When the animal exits the frame and a bone-crunching sound is heard, I assumed the film had wasted no time chalking up a fatality; I was both wrong and right. The cat returns (exactly what happened during this moment is explained later) and the camera follows it into a nearby home, the animal acting as our guide, where we meet a newborn baby, her mother, and a vile hag from the great beyond.
This is Old Maid Maria (Anamaria Marinca), a witch or “wolf-eateress”, who reminded me of the woman from The Shining’s Room 237 if she was dunked in acid then set on fire. The mother begs Maria to spare the bub’s life, promising the witch can return and claim her when she turns 16. Old death breath agrees and comes to collect Nevena (Sara Klimoska) many moons later, introducing her to a life of witchy things: for instance feasting on the blood of living things in the forest, and avoiding pedicures.
Nevena can’t speak, but narrates her feelings via a cryptic voiceover that could have made the film sound ludicrously lofty (“are sparrows snakes, are women wasps?”) but works bizarrely well, underpinning an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque premise with a sense of yearning and deep melancholy. When Nevena assumes human form and experiences the modest life of a peasant, tending gardens and serving stew and what-not, there’s an inference she wants to be something else; perhaps to feel and to belong.
But Maria warns against mingling with humans: this experiment won’t end well, she says, and they’ll tear you to shreds. Like Ari Aster’s Hereditary (another all-guns-blazing horror feature debut), a core part of the fear in this film comes from someone, or something, being unable to escape who they are or what they’ve become. Stolevski ingeniously creates a kind of cosmic distance, detaching his perspective from the constraints of body, gender and even species, to give the impression of canvassing far and wide – all the way to another spirit realm.
There’s a feminist undercurrent in You Won’t Be Alone, its observations of the patriarchy emerging in ways totally germane to the experience. An odd kind of eroticism also emerges: neither sensual nor entirely gross, and certainly not from the male gaze. Sometimes the film doesn’t even feel like it’s from a human gaze. Did a witch, miffed about too many depictions of broomsticks and cartoon cackles, decide to possess Stolevski’s body and create an artistic statement her kind could be proud of? That might help explain how he pulled it off.
You Won’t Be Alone is released in cinemas in Australia on 22 September, and on digital platforms in the UK on 21 October.