In this monthly column, I’ll spotlight a horror movie from a country outside the United States that has flown under the radar. The goal is to showcase the talents of horror filmmakers around the world and make sure their voices don’t go unheard.
MOVIE: THE NOONDAY WITCH (2016)
COUNTRY: CZECH REPUBLIC
WATCH IF YOU LIKE: THE BABADOOK, UNDER THE SHADOW, A HOLE IN THE GROUND, EASTERN EUROPEAN HORROR
The Babadook (2014), Goodnight Mommy (2014), and Under the Shadow (2016) were three films released in rather quick succession that spoke to a new wave of maternal horror. These films shifted from blaming the monstrous mother to making her more sympathetic in the face of single parenthood, societal pressure, grief, and war. However, a film often left out of these discussions in Jiří Sádek’s 2016 Czech film, The Noonday Witch, which grapples with similar themes in the blistering light of day.
The film begins with Eliska (Anna Geislerová) and her daughter, Anetka (Karolína Lipowská), moving to a small Czech village where her husband, Tomasz, grew up. However, he is nowhere to be seen. Eliska keeps telling her daughter that he is on a business trip, but we soon learn that she is lying to her daughter. As they move into a crumbling farmhouse during a horrible heatwave, they are helped by villagers with repairs, childcare, and a shoulder to cry on. But, despite the support, Eliska begins to feel the pressure as a single mother. As her mental state begins to waver, the mayor’s wife warns her that the Noonday Witch is coming to steal her daughter. But, is the witch real? That is the question, isn’t it?
Just from the synopsis, The Noonday Witch covers a lot of the bases of current maternal horror films: absent or dead father, mother under pressure to care for their child, the child acts out due to their frustration, and a monster threatens their already precarious existence. However, The Noonday Witch has some key differences that make it unique. Here are a few of the ways this Czech horror films stands apart from other maternal horror films to make it a worthy watch.
Takes Place in Broad Daylight
There’s been a lot of talk about daytime horror with the release of Ari Aster’s Midsommar. The Noonday Witch is a prime example of daytime horror, with its relentless heat and blazing sun that bleach the wheat fields golden. You want to crank up the A/C just watching the film as the sun eliminates any respite of shade. There is something so anxiety-inducing about a massive empty wheat field; it is almost like staring at the wide ocean. You don’t really know what could be lurking between the stalks, and not even the sun can illuminate that for you.
A massive heatwave is mentioned throughout the film and is said to be pushing everyone to madness. People are dying of heatstroke, pipes are breaking, and villagers are acting odd due to the temperature. The heat’s effect on people is at times scarier than a lack of places to hide. It pushes Eliska and other adults to act rashly, creating a tense atmosphere where someone could snap at any sweat-drenched second.
Most maternal horror films take place in dark houses, which allows creatures to flit through the shadows and hide in corners. The witch, however, craves sunlight. It is how she is able to get into houses and appear to her victims. She needs the light and there is no way to hide from it.
The film is based on a Czech fairytale called The Noon Witch, which was written in a poem in 1853 by Karel Jaromir Erben, then was made into a symphonic poem in 1896 by Antonin Dvorak. The fairytale is about Lady Midday, or the Polednice, seen in Slavic mythology. She is a demon that appears at the stroke of noon to take away naughty children. In the fairytale, a mother threatens to give her misbehaving son to the Noon Witch. Naturally, he keeps acting out, so at noon exactly, the witch appears to retrieve the child. His mother, horrified that she actually appeared, refuses to give up her son and grabs him tightly to protect him. However, in this process, she smothers him to death.
The Noonday Witch takes this tale and gives it a modern twist while keeping true to its key plot points. There is a decent amount of child murder by suffocation. But this film works to take a fairytale and give its mother character more agency and depth, showcasing her dedication to her child no matter the frustration.
Portrayal of the Villagers
Many maternal horror films are about the mother and the child, with a few ancillary characters on the periphery. However, The Noonday Witch is just as much about community as it is about motherhood. From day one in the village, Eliska is offered support from the villagers in moving in her belongings, babysitting her daughter, and fixing odds and ends around the house. There are complex relationships between Eliska and Anetka with several key villagers, including the mayor and his wife, Anezka (Daniela Kolářová). Anezka is the town crazy person, as she was hospitalized for murdering her son many years ago, a murder she blames on the Noonday Witch. Anezka warns Eliska that the witch is coming for her next.
These relationships are key to the film’s building dread as Eliska’s relationship with each villager becomes more and more strained, whether due to drunken encounters, overzealous questioning, or unannounced visits to her home. While there are not many big scares in The Noonday Witch, there is plenty of fear about what may happen to this new family at the hands of the villagers
Addresses Patriarchal Norms
A single mother alone in a secluded house, unfortunately, is bait for the more boorish men of the village. One man in particular who constantly offers to help Eliska gets drunk and tries to rape her, claiming he deserves payment for fixing her house. This is not just a film about the pressures a mother faces while parenting, but also the pressures she faces from patriarchal norms, especially in a more rural setting. Eliska is constantly under scrutiny by the men of the village, from the mayor to the handyman. While she tentatively trusts their support, she quickly learns that she cannot trust most of the men around her, something that the older women of the village already know. They speak about the mayor’s sexual harassment and their husbands’ infidelity as if it is just a fact of life, one that Eliska must learn and understand.
The Noonday Witch is a beautiful modern-day fairytale set under a blazing sun. It illuminates the struggles of motherhood, poverty, patriarchy, and grief through an Eastern European lens. This is not a film to miss if you enjoy psychological horror and a big question about the existence of a real supernatural creature.