Effective horror films don’t always need a lot of blood, guts, and gore. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is a prime example. The horror lies in a Satanic cult trying to control Rosemary’s (Mia Farrow) reproductive process. It’s a slow-burn, psychological film with little splatter. The Other Lamb, directed by Malgorzata Szumowska and written by C.S. McMullen, is a film whose terror lies in the abusive authority that a cult leader, Shepherd (Michiel Huisman), exerts over his flock, a group of women divided into “wives” and “daughters.” One daughter, Selah (Raffey Cassidy), gradually resists his influence, and her awakening is an affront to the patriarchal leader. The Other Lamb doesn’t feature geysers of blood and a massive kill count. Rather, it’s at times subdued, loaded with religious imagery, stellar cinematography, and clever use of the camera. Parts of it may feel too slow for the casual viewer, but its premise is creative, even if the execution is sometimes faulty.
The setting is established immediately when we’re introduced to the wives, dressed in purple robes, and the daughters, dressed in blue robes, outside, on an isolated compound, their bodies dwarfed by the landscape of trees. The exterior scenes and shots of the natural world are stunning.
The women have no modern technology or connection to the outside world. Shepherd’s power over the women is showcased during an early interior scene in which he’s seated at the head of a long wooden table. The wives are on one side and the daughters on another. He slowly rises and then scans the women, their heads bowed, as he asks who will accept his “grace.” By the way his gaze lingers on them, it’s clear he’ll have sex with the chosen woman. It’s a rather simple scene, but incredibly chilling and effective in establishing how this Jesus look-a-like asserts dominance through sex and religion.
As the film continues, it’s clear that Shepherd has a physical attraction to Selah, despite her age and the fact her mom died in his “flock.” In several shots, he leans close to her, whispering in her ear, caressing her hair. His want of her is underscored by clever use of the camera and voyeurism. In the film’s first act, Shepherd’s gaze bores down on Selah, sometimes through a window in a separate cabin, as he’s physical with another woman, inserting his fingers into her mouth, aware that Selah’s watching through the window of an opposite cabin.
Initially, her attraction to him, or perhaps to his power, is evident by how he makes her tremble or how she abides by his rules, at least at first. As his abuse becomes more pronounced, shown through close-ups of scars on the women’s bodies, or red marks on their neck, or forced fasting when they have their periods, she rebels. Her resistance and awakening are linked to her anxiety regarding her period and this notion that it’s punishment for Eve’s original sin. Selah’s dissent and Cassidy’s performance in the role are noteworthy. She doesn’t take up arms against him, necessarily. She’s far too sly for that, but when she starts questioning the nonsense he spews and even slaps him, you want to stand up and cheer. Finally, the women have had enough of his bs!
Esther (Mallory Adams), a “broken thing” and outcasted wife who suffers the worst abuse, fosters Selah’s rebellious spirit, and the scenes between the two characters are some of the film’s finest, especially when Esther tries to comprehend why she’s stayed in the flock for so long. Teary-eyed, she confesses that she doesn’t even remember who she used to be, and she doesn’t know anything else. Here, attention is given to character and dialogue. It’s incredibly haunting and powerful and shows the mind-rattling impact a cult leader can have on his followers.
There are parts of the film that drag, especially when the cult is displaced and spends most of the middle act on foot, searching for a new home. Again, the shots of the characters juxtaposed against a natural landscape are well-done, but you wish they’d arrive at a destination already. The journey becomes tedious. The film’s other flaw is its paper-thin characters. You don’t learn anything about the cult leader’s history, other than his real name is Michael, and you learn little to nothing about the women.
Yet, The Other Lamb’s final act and the violence it contains make the slow middle worth the wait. The rebellion blossoms, but only after the cult leader commits an even more horrid act that’s never fully shown on-screen but is utterly despicable, even for such a wingnut. The connection between the women and natural world gels at the end too, which clarifies some of the film’s earlier imagery that may at first seem muddled.
Overall, The Other Lamb’s strengths lie in the cinematography and some well-scripted scenes that show the power a male cult leader exerts over women. Blood and gore are used sparingly but effectively, mostly to highlight Selah’s anxiety about her period, womanhood, and Shepherd’s sexual attraction to her. The film doesn’t give us much to chew on regarding the characters, but it does have a potent ending. The Other Lamb hasn’t garnered as much attention this year as IFC Midnight’s The Wretched or its forthcoming Relic, but it’s a layered film worth a stream.
Follow HorrOrigins Social Media Pages