Moloch

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Moloch
"Van den Brink makes the bog omnipresent in the film with a colour palate heavy on browns and greys, whilst cinematographer Emo Weenhoff makes the most of the humidity still residing in the chill air." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

Bog bodies have been being unearthed for centuries now, and have always proven to be objects of special fascination. Often bound, sometimes exotically garbed, they have generally been stabbed or garrotted before being placed in bogs in what is widely interpreted as an act of sacrifice. In 1897, the body of a teenage girl who had died around 1,000 years previously was found in the Stijfveen peat bog near the village of Yde in the Netherlands, exciting all sorts of local speculation. Nico van den Brink’s film pays clear homage to this discovery as it tells the story of a remarkably similar body found in the same area in the present day, and hints at a tradition passed down across centuries.

Sallie Harmsen plays Betriek, a young, widowed mother living on the edge of that peat bog, where her family has resided for centuries. She’s carrying deep trauma from the loss of her husband and from another incident, in her childhood, which we gain a partial understanding of from the film’s prologue. Nevertheless, she is getting on with life, enjoying strong family relationships, and she takes an interest both in the archaeological discovery and in the head of the archaeological team, Jonas (Alexandre Willaume). He can’t speak Dutch so needs a translator to deal with locals who are unhappy about his work – including Betriek’s father, Roelof (Fred Goessens). Betriek seems relieved to have found somebody with whom she can have an intellectually satisfying conversation.

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The community is already on edge because of the death of a local man who had been digging obsessively in the peat before being found, apparently a victim of exposure to the elements. When one of the men on Jonas’ team seemingly loses his mind and behaves in a similar manner before becoming violent, it becomes clear that something strange is going on. Jonas becomes frustrated because everything points to Betriek and her family being at risk, yet she won’t tell him what she thinks it is. He’s sure she knows more that she’s letting on. In fact her mother, Elske (Anneke Blok), knows a whole lot more.

The folk horror aspect of this story is fairly straightforward – muddled only to the degree that real life folklore and its associations tend to be. Harmsen is the film’s strongest asset, gradually letting us into a multi-layered character whose decisions may sometimes seem odd but make sense as further context is revealed. Whilst Jonas wants to draw her out of herself and give her a chance to heal, Betriek stubbornly maintains an emotional distance, perhaps to ensure his physical safety, perhaps simply because she wants to enjoy their time together without having to think about her problems at all. It’s behaviour guaranteed to fascinate a man who has built his career around uncovering mysteries.

Van den Brink makes the bog omnipresent in the film with a colour palate heavy on browns and greys, whilst cinematographer Emo Weenhoff makes the most of the humidity still residing in the chill air. The village itself – at a little distance from Betriek’s house – is delightfully picturesque, and all the more so by torchlight, when its people gather for an annual procession. The effect is to instil a sense of safety in community or a longing for homely interiors as sanctuary from the hostile wilderness. There are all sorts of ways to die in bog country, and Van den Brink’s visual style works to personify them in the mind of the viewer, inviting us to imagine much more than what we see directly.

When dealing with community members beyond the central characters, the director’s style is less assured. The film is heavy handed in places, especially towards the end, and this diverts attention away from the sense of otherworldly presence which it has worked so hard to build. Nonetheless, this is an interesting contribution to the genre, its complex heroine giving viewers more reason to invest than in most such fare.

Moloch screened as part of the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Reviewed on: 18 Jul 2022
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Betriek lives at the edge of a peat bog in the North of the Netherlands. When she and her family are attacked by a random stranger one night, Betriek sets out to find an explanation. The more she digs, the more she becomes convinced that she is being hunted by something ancient.

Director: Nico van den Brink

Writer: Daan Bakker, Nico van den Brink

Starring: Alexandre Willaume, Sallie Harmsen, Jack Wouterse, Markoesa Hamer

Year: 2022

Runtime: 99 minutes

Country: Netherlands

Festivals:

Fantasia 2022

Streaming on: Shudder


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