A tremendously unsettling fairytale opens the feature debut of director Fritz Böhm and so it is no surprise to learn he’s a German. What follows is a viciously realised coming of age chiller that never quite adds up.
There is much of Wilding that reminds of Julia Ducournau’s cannibalist horror Raw. Both feature young women coming to terms with new and unexpected identities; both are intelligently gory; both have been put together on a pittance and both are elevated by transfixing central performances. It would be fair to say that Ducournau’s long-form experience gave her the upper hand. In its execution, tone, atmosphere and conceit, Wildling is breathtaking. It is the overall construction of the film and its characters that weakens the whole.
Bel Powley, of The Diary of a Teenage Girl – or, if you’ve of a certain generation, M.I.High – fame plays Anna, an adolescent who has been raised to believe that she is the only survivor a ‘wildling’ attack. Wildlings, we learn, are the sharp toothed, hairy and gnarly creatures of nightmares that oddly reminding of Julia Donaldson’s Gruffalo in conception. Trapped in a dusty attic, Anna’s only companion in growing up is the man she calls Daddy (Chucky stalwart Brad Dourif) but when he attempts to take his own life – to ‘go to the better place’ – she is introduced to the normal world she never knew existed.
The extent to which Anna has been deceived only truly becomes apparent in open society: she walks barefoot, will only eat meat and is baffled on being presented with a tampon by her temporary guardian, Sheriff Ellen Cooper (Liv Tyler). Indeed, the most disturbing legacy of Anna’s entrapment is the belief she holds that her periods are a sign of sickness. Daddy, it transpires, was determined not to let his captive mature for misguided but highly logical reasons.
Wildling is that rare bread of unpredictable horror that manages to be so without sacrificing narrative coherence. As such, Böhm’s playful twists and riffs on the heritage of Room and Rapunzel – there is more than a touch of the Grimm Brothers here – are best left unspoilt. This is a film that is wholly dependent on the power of its effects and their ability to distract from too close a notice being taken of the plot: when Anna escapes her forrest prison she neglects to pack logic.
It is a distracting lack of real world empathy that initially undermines the successes of Wildling. If rolling with the horror is easy – a wildling is brilliantly described in the opening scene – the kitchen-sink counterbalance is too inconsistent to ring true. Ellen and her – unrealistically – younger brother Ray are, for one, bizarrely unconcerned by the trauma Anna has experienced. So little so that she receives no therapy and is immediately sent off to school. Perhaps it is implied that time is rapidly passing but this only does to undermine the subtler nuances at work in the film.
Böhm did well in recruiting Toby Oliver as cinematographer, following work on Get Out and Happy Death Day, as his film is a visual delight, far exceeding what one might expect on the $2m budget. Paul Haslinger’s score is, likewise, an asset in the scene setting, whilst Böhm himself must be commended for his impressive directorial flair and ear for the eerie.
Wildling marks a promising start in the feature career of its director and is bolstered by sterling work from his cast and crew alike.