At their weakest, horror movies can be boiled down to one or two “gotcha” elements, thematic or environmental springboards which carry the weight of the vulnerabilities and anxieties supposedly expressed in the piece. TVs in The Ring, showers in Psycho; at their strongest, however, theme and environment are one and the same – the shower in Psycho is not scary because showers are vulnerable and scary, though they are. The shower in Psycho is scary because Norman Bates is scary, and Norman Bates has a key, and a peephole, to that shower. He has a way into our intimate places, and can expose and exploit our secret vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, The Noonday Witch is not one of these movies, and it hopes that the terror of a heat-induced mental breakdown will be enough. If it’s not enough for Psycho, it’s not enough for anybody.
Eliska (Anna Geirslerová), running from her grief following her husband’s recent death, decides to relocate from the city to the small, agricultural town where her late husband grew up, attempting somehow to insulate her daughter, Anetka (Karolína Lipowská) from the news and make some space for the new life they’re now forced into. Of course, the new venue does the exact opposite – surrounded by those her husband grew up with, living in his old childhood home, and trying to hide the truth from her daughter, Eliska is slowly being strangled by the grief she attempted to escape. Beyond that, there’s the strange apparition of the mayor’s wife (Daniela Kolárová), waifish and drifting around like a ghost already, who, the last time the drought was this bad, was found cradling the smothered body of her son and has never recovered since. It probably doesn’t help that she insists it was a witch who took her son, and has fixated on Anetka as the next victim. Eliska grows increasingly distraught in balancing her grief and her increasing paranoia, not to mention the strange environment and the small, though growing, hostilities in small town life, represented in the presumptuous forwardness of a “helpful” male neighbor (Jir̆í S̆trébl).
If a lot of this sounds like 2014’s The Babadook, you’re where I was throughout this film. Nearly every major element possible is shared between this film and that, and it’s, unfortunately, not very flattering. Mostly, The Noonday Witch seems quite shallow compared to the complexity and sensitivity of The Babadook, as well as a little timid. Though both are about mothers whose grief and emotional distress become increasingly dangerous for their children, Babadook comes away with a much more insightful dissection of familial, especially parental, relationships, and one that’s not always flattering. In comparison, The Noonday Witch keeps a generally positive spin on the relationship at base, skating around the ambiguity that made Babadook such a success. Beyond the thematics, there’s also something to be said for doing good work up front on a creature – the titular “monsters” don’t really compare here, particularly in terms of being visually arresting.
It might be unfair, despite their similarities, to compare Noonday Witch to what’s arguably the best horror movie of the 21st century (so far) because most films don’t stand up to that comparison. Though it’s thematically simple, the film is often fairly scary, and there’s a very nice sense of the value of the slow-burn, which is hopefully making a comeback in the genre under the auspices of filmmakers like Ty West. Beyond that, cinematographer Alexander Surkala turns in stunning work here, employing a very rich palette of blues and golds which, mixed with Geirslerová’s vibrant red hair, makes for a consistently striking image. Technically, the film is quite well-mounted and acted under the direction of Jiri Sádek with strong editing and a good sense of place and tone. Ultimately, however, it just never quite rises above the shallowness of its initial set-up, never quite offers anything new in its approach to a recently well-trodden subject. All this simply renders it only competent which may be the worst thing a film can be.