When did you first realize your father was imperfect? When did you first doubt your faith? When did you first question the patriarchy and its rules that define your freedoms? For Selah, all this comes in a world-changing tumble in the coming-of-age horror-drama The Other Lamb.
Directed by Malgorzata Szumowska, The Other Lamb centers on a cult of women who devoutly follow a guru they call Shepherd (Game of Thrones’ Michiel Huisman). Living deep in the woods, Shepherd’s wives and daughters divvy up the chores of housekeeping, food preparation, and childcare. At night, he chooses a wife to share his bed. Among the trees, he delivers sermons and praises purity, which has a deep impact on his teen daughter Selah (Vox Lux’s Raffey Cassidy). She wants to be his favored, so much so that she sneers at the “cursed wife” who lives on the edge of camp, caring for the impure (women who are on their periods). However, as a disturbance pushes the family out of their cozy campsite to part unknown, Selah begins to see flaws in her father and the faith he preaches. Within her burns rebellion and desire so hot that it might burn all she knows to the ground.
The script by C.S. McMullen presents this world through Selah’s perspective. There’s a matter-of-factness to their domestic routine, a fervor over bloody rituals, and sparking jealousy as Selah sees others favored over her. There’s a heated thrill when Shepherd begins to show her attention, and a jolting sexuality to these exchanges that is titillating and unnerving. The cinematography of Michal Englert echoes Selah’s burgeoning sexual desire through lusty close-ups of Shepherd’s handsome face, flowing hair, and muscled torso. The edit by Jaroslaw Kaminski lets these shots linger, giving audience license to lust but also the haunting sense we should not.
This unsettling blend of excitement and revulsion arises in surreal scenes of horror, that might be Selah’s dreams, prophetic visions, or a poetic visual of the war raging in her expanding mind. There will be blood, slaughtered lambs, and screams wide-mouthed but muted. All of this makes for a moody and eerie brand of horror that’s suitably mind-bending. The timeline leaps from the pilgrimage plot to these visions or wishes, forcing audiences to question what is real versus what is felt.
While the reveals of the script are pretty predictable for a story of a chauvinistic cult, the style of the film gives Selah’s story added depth. The angelic good looks of Shepherd speak to a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The uniform of the women speaks to their submissiveness to his desire. The daughters wear bright blue dresses, long and in thick wool. Their hair is braided into a crown, a sense of sensuality contained. It’s little wonder some escaped strands draw Shepherd’s eye to Selah. Meanwhile, the wives wear red, which seems to speak to a defining rule of their acceptance: they have bled. Around their woodsy world, open space is cut short by walls implied by wool string, a constant reminder of Shepherd’s presence and possession of them.
Yet for all its style, The Other Lamb might have fallen flat if not for two powerful leads. With a warm smile and a firm presence, Huisman offers an intoxicating masculinity that makes it easy to see how Shepherd has attracted these women. Then, as the story turns sinister, a coldness emerges that’s truly chilling. The ensemble of cult members bring life and variety, sparking with zealous joy, aching jealousy, and harrowing grief. At their center, Cassidy is a force of nature. Her husky voice channels the agony and ecstasy of breaking into womanhood. Her slim, girlish body radiates with tension, making her audience tense in empathy, bound to her pain and passion. With stark brows and piercing blue eyes, her gaze reflects hope and hatred with equal intensity. Her tight-knit mouth expresses screams withheld. Altogether, she delivers a searing portrait of disillusionment and rebellion with riveting restraint and haunting bravado.
Beautiful, anguished, and defiant, The Other Lamb offers a cult horror story that is splashed with violence and blood, but uses neither to express its deepest scares. Instead, it digs into the psychology of its cult to expose the human needs and vulnerabilities exploited by a man who promised a dream and delivered a nightmare. Then, it gives us a climax of feminist fury and righteous comeuppance.
The Other Lamb is now on digital.
Header Image Source: IFC Midnight