Fantastic Fest Review: Nightsiren
Tereza Nvotová’s bewitching horror makes her one to watch
By Matthew Monagle,
10:12AM, Mon. Oct. 3, 2022
As more filmmakers break into horror with high-concept stories, audiences have become quick to name new directors as rising stars of the genre.
And while we can (and should) be slow to push for the canonization of any first- or second-time filmmaker, let me say this: If Nightsiren is indicative of both Tereza Nvotová’s talent and interest in horror, then she deserves a blank check from any studio that would consider itself a purveyor of intelligent, modern horror.
Nightsiren is a film about witchcraft – but more than that, it’s about the labels put on women to justify acts of violence towards them. After running away from her abusive mother as a child, Šarlota (Natalia Germani) returns to her village to close out a few final affairs. Šarlota has never made peace with what happened with her mother, nor has she forgiven herself for an accident that cost the life of her younger sister. But when Šarlota meets Mira (Eva Mores) – another young transplant unafraid to be her true self – their unlikely friendship is threatened by the ugly superstitions of their community.
Broken into chapters – a surefire sign of quality from any horror film – Nightsiren creates a small community as a stand-in for societal poisons. The families that turn their attention to Šarlota and Mira are significantly unhappy. One character allows her repressed homosexuality to manifest as religious condemnation, while others openly resent the vibrant sexual energy the two women share with the men who have caught their eyes. This makes Nightsiren a film about projection, the way prejudices often boil over from an unwillingness to break with religious or cultural traditions.
In fact, everything in the film feels like a delicate balance act, from the probing conversations between Šarlota and Mira to the guarded interactions with the townsfolk. Even the occasional burst of surrealism in the film – a writhing tower of neon-flecked bodies literalizes the repressed sexual energy that surrounds the two women – feel grounded in the angry, leering faces Šarlota navigates every day. Nightsiren is a film bursting with anger, but that anger is sharpened to a glowing white edge, never straying from one family and their shared history of oppression.
Those well-versed in their Slovakian shooting locations will also recognize a key landmark from Ravenous, Antonia Bird’s 1999 cult cannibal western. Nvotová frames several important sequences on the same towering cliffside as Bird’s film, crafting a space between life and death, modernity and nature. Location is one of the film’s greatest strengths. Throughout Nightsiren, we catch occasional glimpses of a major highway on the other side of the valley. This proximity to civilization – of society, but far enough away to be functionally ungovernable by anything other than mob mentality – is what makes the people around Šarlota so mundane and so dangerous.
By effectively straddling worlds old and new, Nightsiren follows a fine tradition of modern-day fairy tales. Its blend of paganism and violence is not a new concept, but the performances of Germani and Mores – and an earthy direction that heightens the connection the two women have with the lands they call home – only further enriches a powerful story. Nightsiren is a bewitching film that will hopefully work its magic on countless horror audiences to come.
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