During a blisteringly hot summer, an attractive widow moves with her young daughter to her mysteriously deceased husband’s native village, but the stresses of single parenthood and the new locale threaten family serenity in the psychological horror film “The Noonday Witch.” Although the feature debut of Czech helmer Jiri Sadek was ostensibly inspired by 19th-century author Karel Jaromir Erben’s poem, the script by Michal Samir owes a debt to Jennifer Kent’s superior “The Babadook.” Selling points such as gorgeous Ana Geislerova in a heartfelt performance as the mother and Alexander Surkala’s atmospheric 35mm lensing might trump the film’s disappointing final act and allow this witch to fly into further festival berths.
It’s never clear why financially-strapped Eliska (Geislerova) hasn’t told daughter Anetka (Karolina Lipowska) that her father is dead. Perhaps it is because his fatal accident was a suicide and she feels guilt over an argument that caused him to leave their home in Prague. Nevertheless, her failure to fess up to Anetka and confront her own grief creates the threat to the family that is later metaphorically embodied by the witch. From the very first moments, director Sadek uses viewers’ consciousness of certain things being left unsaid to instill a mood of unease, which he reinforces with classic genre tropes such as odd camera angles and tension-inducing music.
Once installed in their new home, a crumbling cottage on the outskirts of the village, Eliska and Anetka must rely on the locals, such as leering neighbor Polacek (Jiri Strebl) and the red-faced mayor (Zdenek Mucha) for help. Eventually the mayor reveals his own family secret, something that involves his crone-like wife (Daniela Kolarova), whose wanderings and warnings unsettle the two newcomers, even if her advice, “You need to cry together,” ultimately proves true.
Eschewing the expressionist lighting style associated with Hollywood-based horror, much of the film unfolds in the shimmering heat and golden light of the noonday sun (which calls to mind other contemplative horror films such as “Picnic at Hanging Rock), although there are a few jump scares that take place in the cottage by night. Out of sync nature provides another important motif, represented by parched fields of waving wheat, a drought whose like hasn’t been seen for 40 years, and even an eclipse. The relatively polished first two-thirds of the film build such a compelling mood and atmosphere, it’s disappointing the final act resorts to some not particularly special visual effects.
Helming his first feature after several well-regarded shorts, director Sadek displays an assured visual sense and the ability to elicit nuanced performances from the experienced cast. Strebl, who is mostly known for his television work, makes a strong impression here as the would-be good neighbor who is slyly seeking a quid pro quo. Young Lipowska also represents a good find as the stubborn, angry daughter.
Distributor Falcon rolled out a country-wide release in March that garnered some 70,000 admissions.