There is only Anna and Daddy:
…and here is a film that I’m going to be raving about for the rest of 2018. Wildling is a startlingly assured debut from director Fritz Böhm, who also co-writes the screenplay with Florian Eder; and it is probably the most visually luscious horror film I’ve seen in years. Although beneath it all it isn’t really a horror film at all.
I suppose that at some stage the tag ‘werewolf’ will be applied to it (although that word is never uttered); but that is not what it is either. In fact, by the film’s end you’re pretty much left to make your own mind up on what you’ve just seen. To me it is like a beautiful, sad chapter pulled from the pages of a book on myth and folklore.
The first fifteen minutes is really a mini-movie in itself, deftly and economically showing us the strange childhood of Anna, who is kept in the attic of a house in the woods by ‘Daddy’, played by the great Brad Dourif at his creepy best. The walls are decorated with childish paintings of the trees and birds, almost the only things that Anna can see from her window. And also with images of a ghoulish creature tearing kids apart.
It is, of course, child abuse, though not sexual. In his own twisted way Daddy seems to love her, even though emphasizing always that she can never leave her room. After all, a wildling is intent on getting her. The wildling, says Daddy, has long sharp teeth and long sharp nails and long thick hair and, having already eaten all the other little children in the word, now wants to eat her. There is no one else left; there is only Anna and Daddy.
Yes, perhaps that’s what Wildling is: the very darkest of dark fairy tales.
The very young Anna is played superbly by Arlo Mertz, all heartbreaking innocence and trust, with huge frightened eyes staring out over the bedcovers as Daddy tells her yet another black bedtime story.
At the age of sixteen Anna (now portrayed by the outstanding Bel Powley) is rescued from her confinement by Sheriff Ellen Cooper (Liv Tyler) and given over — rather implausibly, I thought — into her care. After all, what the doctors were suggesting didn’t sound all that wrong to me. Instead, she finds herself sharing a home with Ellen and her young brother, Ray (Collin Kelly-Sordelet). So now we have two teenagers, on the brink of discovering their sexuality, sharing a house together, at first uncomfortably and then with quiet acceptance.
And Anna, who has been kept on a strict vegetarian diet all through her formative years, is discovering that she really, really likes meat.
You would think that Ellen would be at least a bit concerned when Anna and Ray decide to go to a party. After all, this kid is only beginning to feel her way into a normal existence, has never tasted alcohol and isn’t really used to being around people yet; but the kindly Sheriff doesn’t exactly seem to be the sharpest pencil in the box, if the truth be told.
And here the film could have easily slipped into familiar territory, since in a way one of its themes of budding womanhood reminds me of the 2000 film Ginger Snaps, a fine if very different kind of horror story. Luckily, Böhm and Eder sidestep this nicely… and instead we see Anna awakening to what she truly is.
In its examination of the primal creature inside all of us, another film it calls to mind is Mike Nichols’s 1996 Wolf, but it is so far ahead of that well-intentioned, big-budget misfire – starring no less than Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, James Spader and Christopher Plummer — that it’s in another stretch of the forest altogether.
And speaking of ‘if you go down to the woods today’, I was astonished to see that what looks like dense forest was all filmed wonderfully by cinematographer Toby Oliver within a 23-mile radius of Manhattan. Europeans, I guess, forget that there is a lot more to New York State than the Big Apple. In fact, it brought to mind for me that in the sixties there was an entire community of people found to be living happily and well amongst 19th century trappings, entirely cut off from the outside world, within forty miles of New York City. To be honest, I find that kind of thing encouraging. (Although I would imagine that after a magazine broke the story they are now unhappily taxed up to their eyeballs.)
There is a fine, unobtrusive but very atmospheric soundtrack by Paul Haslinger; and just as an added delight, a beautiful theme song played over the closing credits – itself called Wildling – -that is written and performed by Linda Perry.
But the one person that this film would not be the same without is Bel Powley, who has just the right blend of silence, innocence, puzzlement and ferocity. This actress, who has to show so much through just her eyes, is a pure revelation.
And Böhm doesn’t overdo the fairytale symbolism. There is a possible link between the sheets with the menstrual blood and Anna painting her fingernails red; but she could just as simply be doing that to hide the fact that they are changing.
There are certain leaps in logic, and cinematic shorthand is used to push the story onwards, but I like to think that this is the filmmakers granting their audience some intelligence, which makes a nice change.
The climax is gory enough to suit more conventional horror-movie fans; but it is those final, perfect closing shots that will stay with me. They are beautiful, tragic, haunting and – yes – even life-affirming.
Wildling is another contender for top ten films of 2018.