You Won’t Be Alone (Focus Features, R)

Folk horror is a tricky genre to get right, but first-time feature director Goran Stolevski pulls it off in style in You Won’t Be Alone. The story is set somewhere in the Balkans, at some time in the 19th century, in a rural area ruled by traditions and taboos and in which witchcraft is simply a fact of life, its manifestation no more surprising than a clap of thunder or a lightning bolt.

Stolevski opens with a detail that becomes more meaningful upon second viewing: a cat devouring its prey, as cats have done since time immemorial (or at least up to the point where people decided to keep them indoors and feed them from tins). Children are playing hide and go seek, with the seeker calling out a bloodcurdling warning: “I am the plague, black as the blackest. If you’re not hiding, I’ll eat you for breakfast.”

Yoana (Kamka Tocinovski), busy putting her baby daughter to bed, chases some of the errant kids out of her house with the threat that “the Wolf Eateress” should get them. What she doesn’t know is that the Wolf Eateress, also known as Old Maid Maria* (Anamaria Marinca) is already present in her house—because that’s who the cat is. Maria transforms to her human form, an old woman whose skin seems to be made up entirely of burn scars, and demands the baby. Yoana tries desperately to bargain, offering other children instead, and finally wins the concession that she can raise her daughter until age 16. To seal the deal, Maria marks the baby by ripping out her tongue.

Yoana hides the baby in a cave, hoping against hope to outwit the witch, and that’s where her daughter Nevena (Sara Klimoska) grows to maturity. Since she can’t speak, we hear Nevena’s thoughts in voiceover, a brilliant filmmaking choice by Stolevski that creates a distancing effect while also facilitating the use of multiple actors in the same role. Of course, the witch returns to take what’s hers, and transfers her powers—including the ability to shape-shift—to Nevena. After a few days of teaching Nevena how to survive as her new self, lessons reinforced by many slaps and rebukes, Maria abandons her to find her own way in the world.

Since she’s been raised in isolation, Nevena is discovering the natural world and human society at the same time she’s learning about her powers as a witch. And since she can take on multiple shapes (after killing and eating the person or animal whose likeness she will take on), she’s in a great position to discover just how the local society functions. The human roles she takes on include a poor peasant mother (Noomi Rapace), a hunky young man (Carlotto Cotta), and a young and pregnant woman (Alice Englert). That each person has apparently become both unable to speak and unfamiliar with the world in which they were brought up raises hardly a suspicion among the villagers, who are more than willing to attribute such changes to domestic abuse or demonic possession.

This society is not a great place to be a female. In an early scene, we see a woman giving birth in a field, all the while being scolded for taking so long; once the baby is out, it’s whisked away and the woman goes straight back to work harvesting. In this context, the cruelty shown by Maria toward Yoana and Nevena becomes more comprehensible—she ruled them with force, as men rule women, and as everyone rules children.

We don’t get the back story on Maria until more than an hour in, but when we do, it’s properly told around a flickering fire, as the best scary stories are, by a grandmother to an eager audience of children. She begins: “This is something that happened centuries ago, when the Turk was at his cruelest. Entire villages he emptied of boys. Every last boy. For Old Maid Maria there wasn’t a bachelor left. And so…Maria’s life was like a river…it flows and flows and remains in the same spot.” The story continues, alternating between narration and acted-out sequences, which tells you even more about the cruelty of this villages, as well as how Maria, once a beautiful young woman, acquired her resemblance to Freddy Krueger.

You Won’t Be Alone doesn’t stint on the graphic horror, but neither does it stew the audience in a sea of gore—instead, it’s just explicit enough to communicate the matter-of-fact cruelty of life in this remote region, as practiced by peasants and witches alike. Balancing this grim take on life is the splendid cinematography by Matthew Chuang, which highlights the natural beauty of the region, while the soundtrack by Andrew Kotàtko is more often evocative than shocking.

You Won’t Be Alone is the kind of movie that suggests more than it shows, deliberately leaving room for multiple interpretations. Viewers who like having everything spelled out for them, in a logical order, may find it frustrating for that very reason. Such people are missing out, however—Stolevski’s choice to let some things remain obscure is part of creating the mysterious atmosphere that makes this film so effective. | Sarah Boslaugh

*The languages of You Won’t Be Alone are Romanian and Macedonian, and I can’t help but think these names sounded scarier before being translated into English.

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