The brittle Eliška moves with her young daughter to her husband’s childhood village during a dangerous heat wave in The Noonday Witch, a film shown as a part of the Czech That Film Festival at SIFF this weekend.
Things start out tensely enough—Eliška is keeping her husband’s death a secret from the kid—and only deteriorate when the mayor’s old, addled wife repeatedly invades her home, warning in distressing riddles of a child-stealing witch. The Noonday Witch cadges clichés from horror filmmaking without fully investing in the genre; despite some jump scares, portentous tracking shots, and a doomy, whispery soundtrack, it has little to do with the supernatural. That’s okay, because the “witch” is less interesting than the more typical stuff of contemporary Czech cinema: rural dysfunction, bickering couples, avuncular lechery, and unwanted intrusions. And Eliška’s overly helpful, overtly ogling neighbor, Zdeněk, is creepier than any special-effects-produced apparition in the film.
Yet Eliška herself, played by the prolific Anna Geislerová (Anthropoid, Beauty in Trouble), seems meant to be the film’s conflicted villainess—much like the protagonist of the Australian horror movie The Babadook, this overwhelmed and lonely mother incarnates her dark feelings as a monstrous being that threatens her child. But Eliška is perilously overprotective, not possessed by a beastlike urge to kill her own child, so The Noonday Witch lacks the unladylike ferocity that made The Babadook so comic and horrifying. The suffocating mother is as familiar a trope as the babbling crone. Luckily, Geislerová portrays her character sympathetically, as an exhausted everywoman. And if the movie’s symbolism is heavy, it also makes for some gorgeous shots of sinister women creeping through the shining wheat.
More information and movie times for The Noonday Witch here; complete schedule for the Czech That Film Festival here. Trailer below.