Lost souls: faith and the occult in the Cult strand at LFF

Believing too much or believing too little – both prove equally dangerous paths in this year’s selection of mind-altering genre cinema at the BFI London Film Festival, finds Anton Bitel.

The Rope (2021)

You might, in casting an eye over the Cult strand at the BFI London Film Festival, observe the elegant symmetry of Shepherd being chosen alongside Lamb, or A Banquet complementing The Feast (also programmed by Michael Blyth, and an obvious Cult entry despite appearing formally in the First Feature Competition). But these are just happy coincidences of selection. 

What really unifies these titles is both their loose grip on the outer limits of horror, science fiction and fantasy, and their more rigorous hold on issues of ritual and religion, the occult and the otherworldly. For here we encounter lost souls, empowered outsiders and hybrid creatures, all on quests for meaning in a world where faith is in crisis and conspiracy is real. 

This strand’s features unfold in a zone where belief is not just suspended but tested, and often found to be either in deficit or excess. As always, though, in Blyth we trust, and he never fails to deliver on that promise. (Note that I have not had advance access to Paco Plaza’s La abuela, Fabrice du Welz’s Inexorable or Charlotte Colbert’s She Will.)

A Banquet (2021)

A Banquet (2021)

It begins with an ending. Holly (Sienna Guillory) rushes to liquidise some food, too late, for her gasping, horrifically ill husband who, behind her back, drinks bleach instead. The rest of Ruth Paxton’s feature debut will play out like a slow-motion reprise of that opening. Always relating to her family through her elaborate meals, widowed Holly finds herself playing nurse once more, as eldest daughter Betsey (Jessica Alexander), on the confusing cusp of adulthood, suddenly stops eating altogether and says she has been “chosen” as messianic prophet of the end times.

An ambiguous brew of Melancholia (2011), Swallow (2019) and Saint Maud (2019), this drama of mothers (including Holly’s sceptical mother, played by Lindsay Duncan) and daughters throws hereditary madness, attention-seeking fraudulence, unconditional love and blind faith into the blender, to produce something all at once intense, unhinged and apocalyptic.

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon (2021)

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon (2021)

“Forget what you know,” reads the message in the fortune cookie for NOPD Officer Harold (Craig Robinson) just before he meets Mona ‘Lisa’ Lee (Jeon Jong-seo), a North Korean stranger in a strange land who has just broken out of a secure psychiatric hospital. Fugitive Mona’s peculiar ability to control other people like puppets is something that single mother and stripper Bonnie (Kate Hudson) is quick to exploit and monetise.

Once again, as in her A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour puts an estranged, empowered young woman (or two) in a man’s world to see what satire might emerge from the reversed sexual dynamics, as this low-key, low-stakes superhero flick is pitched with mesmerising improbability somewhere between The Witch: Part 1 – The Subversion (2018) and Hustlers (2019). 

Lamb (Dýrið, 2021)

Valdimar Jóhansson’s feature debut opens on a snowy Christmas night, with a POV shot from an unseen, heavy-breathing figure who enters a sheep-filled manger. Whether he is a farmyard slasher or the bringer of a miracle birth, his visit will forever change the lives of María (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær). This childless farming couple take into their home the ‘gift’ of a newborn lamb, along with Ingvar’s black-sheep brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) – and although, in this psychologically fraught drama of a broken family, events unfold with intense naturalism, the irrational also asserts itself, as nature eventually reclaims its own. 

Parcelling out its narrative information with a spareness that fully rewards the patient viewer, this hybrid fairytale/tragedy restages a couple’s barren existence as nativity play, surrogating an impossible child for the human characters’ unspoken, unresolved despair.

DASHCAM (2021)

DASHCAM (2021)

Anchoring Rob Savage’s follow-up to lockdown zoom horror Host (2020) is live vlogger Annie Hardy (Annie Hardy) – a foul-mouthed, COVID-denying, Trump-supporting stream of toxic consciousness, all id and no censor. Now live-streaming in England (and leaving her crosses at home in America), Annie steals the car of her unexpectedly woke former fellow troublemaker Stretch (Amar Chadha-Patel), and reluctantly agrees to give a lift to Angela (Angela Enahoro), an ailing Black woman. En route, shit literally happens, and as the night takes several wildly unpredictable, violent turns, all Annie’s paranoid neo-libertarian nightmares come true, devoured by her online audience with their constant, mostly dispiriting commentary visible to the side of the screen.

Savage disorientingly remixes genre tropes as freakily sensational ‘gotcha’ moments in found-footage shakicam – but the true horror here (Annie’s rapping aside) is the vivid realisation of a deranged conspiracy-theory worldview. Inaugurating its own QAnon canon, this is a hilariously repellent insider-view car crash (or several) from which you can’t look away. It ends not with a wink, but with a coronaviral cough. 

The Medium (2021)

Also featuring a dashcam among its other footage, this feature – directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun (Shutter, 2004), produced and co-written by Na Hong-jin (The Wailing, 2016) – purports to be a profile of Nim (Sawanee Utoomma), a divinely possessed shaman living in Isan, northeastern Thailand. Soon the documentary filmmakers turn their cameras on Nim’s niece Mink (Narilya Gulmongkolpech), who is exhibiting symptoms that her body too is ripe to accommodate a local goddess.

“You might have watched too much TV,” Nim tells the film crew of their expectations that the possessed “have to shake their bodies or change their voices.” Sure enough, the film starts as a matter-of-fact ethnographic portrait of a region where Buddhism, Christianity and animism make strange bedfellows and where faith comes with contradictions. But as vindictive spirits start asserting themselves through Mink, laidback naturalism gives way to all-out pandemonium, while old clichés of possession, exorcism and found footage receive vividly new expression in unusual local idioms.

Juju Stories (2021)

Juju Stories (2021)

Known collectively as Surreal16, Nigerian writer-directors Michael Omonua, Abba Makama and C.J. ‘Fiery’ Obasi each contribute an episode to this tripartite, Lagos-set anthology of traditional sorcery in modern times. Omonua’s ‘Love Potion’ follows an aspiring novelist who ensnares her beloved with a spell, only to realise that she doesn’t love him after all. Makama’s ‘Yam’ (my favourite) shows the accidental admixture of two different kinds of black magic (and two social classes), with madly messy results. Obasi’s ‘Suffer the Witch’ aligns a student’s suspicion that her best friend may be a witch with her parallel discovery/denial of her own sexuality.  

While engaging with local juju, these three stories also ambiguate their elements of witchcraft, which are all rationalisable or reducible to metaphorical or psychological subtexts. It ensures that this low-budget omnibus comes with real resonance. 

The Rope (La Corde, 2021)

unable to find video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uns14Qug84s

An ensemble of astronomers, cosmologists and technicians find themselves at a crossroads. The data that they are about to harvest from the heavens will either confirm the theory of husband-and-wife team Bernhardt Mueller (Richard Sammel) and Agnès (Suzanne Clément), helping to illuminate the darkest, most distant corners of the universe, or will yield nothing, leading to the closure of the old Norwegian observatory where they are working. 

At this critical juncture, Bernhardt chances upon a mysterious rope protruding from the adjacent forest, and as scientific curiosity sends him and five others on a hiking expedition to see where the rope goes, their increasingly absurd journey, running in peculiar parallel to their observatory experiments, confronts them with issues all at once epistemological, psychological, theological and eschatological. 

Evocative of television’s Lost (a recurring word here), this three-part French cosmic horror miniseries directed by Dominique Rocher (The Night Eats the World, 2018) interweaves multiple strands of personal drama while following the thread of its surreal premise to all kinds of bitter ends. 

Shepherd (2021)

Shepherd (2021)

Still reeling with grief and guilt from the death of his pregnant, adulterous wife Rachel, acrophobic Eric Black (Tom Hughes) contemplates suicide but instead takes a job as shepherd on a remote island, with only his dog Baxter for company. Yet something else there haunts the edges of his conscience with its persistent, nagging presence. 

“It’s easy to get lost here,” Eric is warned by Fisher (Kate Dickie), the ferrywoman who, like a regendered Odin, has one eye and a (dead) pet raven. Eric is indeed a soul lost in a limbo of his own making, and his sheep-counting adventures in isolation play like an oneiric remix of Carnival of Souls (1962), Triangle (2009) and Shutter Island (2010), all buoyed by writer-director Russell Owen’s sublime mastery of nightmarish gothic mood. “We’re nothing without faith,” Eric’s mother (Greta Scacchi) tells him – and so it will prove for our hero on his descent into the emptiness of his own denial, delusion and hellish (self-)torment.

BFI Membership

Become a BFI Member from £39 to enjoy priority festival booking as well as other great benefits all year round.

Join today