Tereza Nvotová's 2022 feature Nightsiren succeeds as a folk horror dependent on the most terrifying part of living in modern society: existing as an outcast. Through rumors, circumstantial evidence, and generational trauma, Nightsiren relays a story about what it means to be a woman in a society where misogyny and xenophobia prevail.
Nightsiren sets its dismal yet alluring tone with a quote, “Even in modern Europe, in certain lonely villages, folklore and medieval superstition are still considered a way of life,” before introducing a riveting detail that haunts the protagonist, the alleged death of her sister. Šarlota (Natalia Germani) bolts out of her house after enduring enough abuse at the hands of her mother, and her loving little sister follows. Despite Šarlota shouting at Tamara (Ela Stanová) and insisting she return home, the younger sister follows her idol further into the woods. The two stumble upon a cliffside dropoff, where Šarlota accidentally knocks Tamara off the edge. Stunned, Šarlota dashes away from the crime scene, unaware if Tamara lay dead or alive at the cliff's base.
After Šarlota disappears, Tamara's corpse vanishes, and their mother's cabin burns down. The locals rely on local lore and legends and conclude that Tamara and Šarlota's neighbor, Otyala (Iva Bittová), an outcasted “witch,” orchestrated all of these events to strengthen her power, unaware the “death” was a freak accident.
Grief's Sad Sister, Ostracism
For the remainder of the film, the viewer witnesses Šarlota's immense guilt and grief rolling over her, along with the anxiety she chokes down during flashbacks. Twenty years following her and her sister's disappearance, Šarlota returns to the village to collect her deceased mother's inheritance, thanks to a letter from a local official. According to the secretaries, the note is counterfeit, and they can't help her. Lost and alone, she returns to one abandoned place she knows no one will try to stay, Otyala's cabin. Despite rumors and supposed hauntings, Šarlota finds a warm bed and solace in the cabin. However, teenagers and young adults adore disrupting the house and searching for Otyala, so they throw rocks and mock Šarlota, pestering and questioning her status as a witch.
Disturbed and annoyed, she wanders into the woods and stumbles upon a woman tanning naked in the moonlight, Mira (Eva Mores). The two institute a strong bond, paralleling her and her sister's relationship, and they both hunker down in Otyala's cabin. This new tight-knit friendship causes the society to murmur about their relationship with the coven, especially when animals and people begin falling ill and dying.
In this Slovakian village, a woman who strays from the norm and disobeys man's rules gets labeled a witch…or the word that rhymes with “witch.” These outcasts have no place befriending the locals and pulling them away from the patriarchal leaders women must serve. Most women in the Slovakian village trust their fear and refrain from looking into other explanations to continue living without challenging their ideas and morals. It's a common trauma response, and those who speak out receive punishment. If a woman talks back to her husband, she's a witch, not a person.
Though Šarlota and Otyala share infrequent meetings, the two parallel each other's sense of grief, guilt, and ostracism. Šarlota ran away from her actions, ostracizing herself and thus contributing to her overwhelming grief and missing her sister. Otyala leans into society's beliefs about her and excludes herself at the edge of the village. She'll let them if they think she's a maniacal witch, despite missing the connection with her former friends.
Like most psychological horror films, Nightsiren depends on the viewer's interpretation of events, and in doing so, the film sometimes suggests style over substance. For example, introducing Otyala using fade-outs and jump cuts distracts the viewer from her entrance and confounds them. During a dance sequence, Šarlota and her boyfriend imbibe a laced drink and envision illuminated individuals mingling in the forest. The viewer gets a smack of Gaspar Noé-tinged film effects, but the meaning behind the sequence falls flat.
Overall, Nightsiren illustrates a horrific, moving story about sisterhood, identity, and feminism in a society that neither appreciates nor explores those elements. Nvotová expands on one of the more disturbing ideas of existence today: becoming stuck in a destructive way of life. Through riveting storytelling, stellar acting, and intelligent metaphors, Nightsiren could transcend as one of the best psychological horror, on par with The VVitch, The Lobster, and Swallow.
Rating: 9/10 SPECS
Nightsiren opens in select North American theaters on September 22.