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Tribeca ’24 Movie Reviews: “THE DEVIL’S BATH,” “THE DAMNED” and “A DESERT” take us to dangerous places

Wednesday, June 12, 2024 | Reviews


Starring Anja Plaschg, David Scheid and Maria Hofstätter
Written and directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala

I’m not usually one for trigger warnings, but do feel that some sort of advisement be made regarding THE DEVIL’S BATH (pictured above): This is one tough viewing experience. The title and period setting initially suggested a folk-horror outing, but this is instead a psychologically penetrating and emotionally devastating character study whose horrors emerge from the human psyche. Powerfully put together by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, the duo behind GOODNIGHT MOMMY and THE LODGE, it is grueling, upsetting and not necessarily what some people will expect when they sit down to watch it upon its Shudder premiere June 28. But the movie, currently playing the Tribeca Film Festival and receiving a theatrical playdate at New York City’s IFC Center June 21, is a grabber right from its opening, a true “Oh no she won’t…” scene.

The centerpiece of THE DEVIL’S BATH is a remarkable performance by Anja Plaschg, which is all the more so because this is her first lead acting role, after a notable career as a musician (she also created BATH’s score under her stage name Soap&Skin). She plays Agnes, first met as she is getting married in a small Austrian village in the late 18th century. The fact that one of the celebration’s games involves beheading a chicken speaks to the harsh time and place in which the villagers live, and Agnes’ life does not become one of wedded bliss. Her husband Wolf (David Scheid) is inattentive in bed and elsewhere, and her mother-in-law Gänglin (Maria Hofstätter) is an ever-present font of unwanted advice. Agnes is a sensitive soul, seen communing with nature at several moments, and her existence of toil and unfulfilled expectations begins to wear heavily on her mind. And the aftermath of that opening tragedy, left on display in nearby woods, begins to suggest an appalling way in which she might free herself from her spiraling depression.

Both of Franz and Fiala’s previous films, though contemporarily set, were suffused in a mood that felt timeless, and here the duo and their team have recreated a bygone era in exacting detail. Basing their script on research by historian Kathy Stuart, they establish the importance of religion and ritual in this isolated community, where the church is by far the dominant building. Within this spartan milieu, the filmmakers and Plaschg evoke a very specific, heartbreaking individual portrait of a woman motivated to commit a terrible act for the simple, heart-rending reason that she believes she has no other choice. This is the true horror of THE DEVIL’S BATH–and the fact that Agnes’ situation is relatable to women today makes Franz and Fiala’s uncompromising approach not only justified but necessary.

Starring Odessa Young, Joe Cole and Siobhan Finneran
Directed by Thordur Palsson
Written by Jamie Hannigan

In a genre-filmmaking age where onscreen environments are often created digitally, there are still reminders that the right actual location can do a lot for a film. A particularly strong example is THE DAMNED, which was shot on a strikingly austere and forbidding coastal part of Iceland, captured with great chilly atmosphere by cinematographer Eli Arenson (who also did a fine job amidst the forests of the just-released THE WATCHERS). It’s the perfect setting for a tale of a group of people against the elements and life-or-death choices with dreadful consequences, even as the movie doesn’t entirely stick the landing.

Currently playing the Tribeca Film Festival and seeing general release later this year, THE DAMNED takes place in a small fishing village during a midwinter in the 1870s, when the snowfall in the surrounding mountains has the largely male occupants essentially trapped there. Their leader, however, is a woman, Eva (Odessa Young), who has inherited the run of the place from her husband, who perished the previous year. Their circumstances have become desperate to the point where they have resorted to eating the fish they intend as bait, so when the group spots a ship sinking off their coast, Eva makes the difficult decision not to help the stricken crew–after all, they can barely keep themselves alive. It’s a decision that will soon haunt everyone in the village, figuratively and literally.

There are echoes of John Carpenter’s THE THING here as the small band in a freezing climate confront a terror that stokes their paranoia and turns them against each other. You won’t see any explosions of monstrous effects here (though there are some squeamingly well-done prosthetics by Thomas Foldberg), but rather a breakdown of the tight little society that has been forged among the fishermen, exacerbated by superstition. Some come to believe that draugr, undead creatures of Norse mythology, are responsible for the terrible events that befall them, or it could simply be that one or more among them have murderously cracked under the mental pressure. Thordur Palsson, making an impressive feature directorial debut, and scripter Jamie Hannigan do an involving job building this mystery, and there’s one especially scary setpiece in which some of the group head out to salvage potential life-saving supplies from the downed ship, and get more than they bargained for.

As well-sustained as THE DAMNED is, it doesn’t quite pay off with as much impact as it could. The final sequence, and its explanation, are pretty much what you expect they’ll be given what has come before, and the film concludes leaving you wishing for something more in the resolution. Up until that point, though, THE DAMNED delivers a gripping survival saga that’s shivery in more ways than one.

Starring Kai Lennox, David Yow and Sarah Lind
Directed by Joshua Erkman
Written by Joshua Erkman and Bossi Baker
Yellow Veil Pictures

Unlike THE DEVIL’S BATH and THE DAMNED, Joshua Erkman’s debut feature A DESERT (world-premiering at Tribeca) is a modern-day story, though it shares with them an evocative sense of place. As the title suggests, it’s set in the American Southwest, through which past-his-prime photographer Alex (Kai Lennox) is trekking. Toting an old-fashioned bellows camera, he’s trying to recapture the days before the guidance of smartphone GPS systems, intentionally “getting lost” and randomly making his way from one long-deserted building to another, capturing/preserving their faded glories on film. The movie opens with Alex snapping the interiors of an abandoned movie theater, introducing the theme of presentation of image that will recur throughout the running time.

While staying in a seedy motel for the night, Alex makes what the audience knows is the mistake of complaining about the violent-sounding noise coming from the room next door. The seedy couple responsible, Renny (Zachary Ray Sherman) and his sister Susie Q (Ashley B. Smith) are at first apologetic, inviting Alex to share a drink and then party with them. It’s pretty clear that the pair are bad news, but Alex doesn’t want to make waves, and what happens from there shouldn’t be discussed further. Suffice to say that things get bad, and that Alex’s wife Sam (Sarah Lind from A WOUNDED FAWN) and private detective Harold (David Yow) also become involved, potentially at their peril.

With great gritty photography by Jay Keitel (SHE DIES TOMORROW), A DESERT plunges us from the start into a world that feels immediate and consistently threatening, while also dropping into the surreal and unexplained on occasion. There are flashes of someone watching luridly pornographic material that at first seem unconnected to the story at hand, and Erkman and Bossi Baker’s script takes a couple of turns that you can’t see coming and that will make you gasp when they do. These moments signal the film’s gradual, inexorable tonal slide from neo-noir to full-blown horror, as people who never should have met become drawn into each other’s orbit.

The small ensemble is aces, with Lennox holding the center as a guy who can’t seem to keep himself out of trouble and Lind sympathetically bringing frustration and resolve to Sam. Yow’s low-key delivery nonetheless strongly suggests that there’s more to Harold and his past than meets the eye, while Sherman keeps us on edge as Renny vacillates on a dime from friendly good ol’ boy to threatening white trash, matched by Smith as his dangerously sexy sibling. There are strong contributions too from genre regulars on the team, including production designers Courtney and Hillary Andujar and makeup effects creators Josh and Sierra Russell, contributing to a mood that becomes increasingly uncomfortable and unnerving as the film goes on. A DESERT is not a trip that ends well for some of its characters, but it’s definitely one worth taking when it gets further fest play and eventual commercial release.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).