‘Nightsiren’ Is Shocking Yet Meandering [Glasgow Film Festival 2023]
There’s something wrong in the village. Nightsiren, a ghost story about the haunting nature of gendered violence, imagines a Slovakian mountain village that recently dispatched a much-detested forest witch. However, it seems the villagers are much more influenced by the spell of misogyny than anything the witch could have conjured. A young woman, Šarlota (Natalia Germani), returns to her estranged home after a long absence. But when she finds her late mother’s cabin burned to ash, she starts staying at the still-standing home of the persecuted Roma witch, Otyla (Iva Bittová).
From the off, their memories start to inexplicably blend, and Šarlota’s own traumatic memory of both her mother’s abuse and her own part in her younger sister’s death rise to the surface. Her mental disorientation fuels her outsider status among the villagers. Soon, the violent rejection of anything that doesn’t conform forces a series of horror-tinged eruptions. It’s full of thoughtful framing, performances, and ideas. It’s good enough that you wish it had been better.
Nightsiren suffers not from the strength of its thematic argument or genre-specific provocations, but from poor pacing. A slow build is necessary for the opening act to reimmerse Šarlota in the village. There, where character relationships and histories are revealed in a gentle, curious way and their deep-set prejudices and superstitions appear not long after. But for the remaining film, there’s a curious lack of momentum, sometimes feeling too much like an assembly cut of unstructured or untrimmed scenes. It’s difficult to tell how much time has passed since Šarlota rejoined the village, and besides a few distinct central characters, a lot of supporting players fade into an undefined background.
And yet, this could very well be director Tereza Nvotová’s intention. Mob violence isn’t only committed physically (although people start brandishing weapons at those they think are witches within the opening minutes) but something that can be brandished psychologically or verbally. This village and its surrounding stretches of mountains and forest terrain are sites of cursed memory, even if Nightsiren is coy about revealing whose fears and nightmares have stained the land. In the Slovak community’s rituals, hierarchies, and customs, misogyny lingers, and with women’s agency so isolated and restricted, it’s only natural that their agency manifests in supernatural ways.
This brings us to the “horror” of Nightsiren. There’s no doubt, with its reflections on unsavory human behavior and intense psychological distress, that Nvotová’s film (co-written by Barbora Namerova) speaks the same language of not just folk horror, but other challenging, introspective fiction. A wild wolf pursuit reminds us of Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves, and bodies gathered in front of a burning cabin feel almost directly lifted from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror. Nightsiren really shines in its panicked crescendos of mob hatred, or in one particular neon-bleeding, Wiccan orgy that Šarlota stumbles through, discovering what can only be described as a human sex pyramid.
Not all of the film’s most arresting imagery is intense. In one silent scene, Šarlota shares communion with a patch of deforested forest by pulling off her wig to reveal her bare scalp, a symptom of a nasty case of trichotillomania. But while these moments feel confidently handled (and gorgeously shot by Federico Cesca), again the film’s structure curtails their impact, they feel inadequately woven into a compelling, well-paced story. Is Nightsiren unsure of itself genre-wise, not because it’s confused about its identity, but because it’s reluctant to commit harder to the story’s inherent eeriness?
It’s not fair or appropriate to suggest a genre film sacrifice its subtleties, especially when a film like Nightsiren is so comfortable doubling down on the contradictions of culturally-specific patriarchy. Nvotová is clearly more interested in human interpretations of horror narratives rather than restricting her story to any archetypes. But the finished film struggles to be heard thanks to uneven execution, and is likely to make you consider where cuts should have been made to get it down to a tighter, more succinct 90 minutes. And yet, images stick with you long after it’s finished. Nightsiren leaves you with arresting, dangerous thoughts even if they felt lost in the confused finished product.
Nightsiren leaves you with arresting, dangerous thoughts even if they felt lost in the confused finished product.