Sunday, July 29, 2012

Backwoods Bastards: SENNENTUNTSCHI (2010)

Seems like every country has their own version of backwoods horror. Every country has some scary, inbred mutherfuckers living in hills that just ain't right in the head and are liable to use your filleted corpse as a dancing partner in the pale moonlight as soon as set on that thar tree stump. Half-baked myths and legit legends are always a good basis for a movie, I reckon, and with SENNENTUNTSCHI (gesundheit!) it seems particularly appropriate since this is, allegedly, the first Swiss horror film ever made.

There is an actual old Swiss legend that tells of three lonely herdsmen in the Swiss Alps who decide that they will make a woman out of a broom, some straw and some rags. The "woman" helps with the chores and at night keeps the men company. The Devil takes pity on them and makes the woman real. The herdsmen rape her and she exacts a poetic revenge. Sorry, that's all you get out of me, no spoilers for this one. This Swiss, Austrian and French co-production is all about following the twists and turns and picking up the clues.

Set during 1975, for reasons that aren't readily obvious, a priest is found hanging from the bell tower. In spite of his apparent suicide the pastor decides to give him a proper burial (very Christian of him). A filthy and disheveled young woman stumbles into the town and collapses, dropping a carved figurine of a goat. While the villagers get lathered up, goaded by the pastor's escalating indictments of satanism, the village's police officer, Sebastian Reusch (Nicholas Ofczarek), takes pity on her, finding that she cannot speak or write and seems to have the mind of a child... except for one thing. She keeps trying to put the moves on him. While the priest tries to lather his flock into lighting their torches and sharpening their pitchforks, Reusch digs deeper into the mystery trying to figure out where this girl came from and how she found her way to the remote village... if she did at all.

A city slicker, Martin (Carlos Leal) decides to get away from it all and volunteers to help out on a farm in the hills above the village run by a cantankerous old hillbilly, Erwin (Andrea Zogg) and his backwards boy Albert (Joel Basman). In between herding goats and making cheese, Erwin also makes his own worm-wood absinthe. One night a few drinks turns into a deranged drunken bender in which Erwin tells of the legend of the sennentuntschi and its horrible consequences. Apparently at the command of the green fairies, Erwin demands that Albert make a sennentuntschi and offhandedly remarks "he's made one before". Oh, this is not going to end well, is it?

All of this is bracketed by a completely superfluous wrap-around set in modern day that feels tacked on and unnecessary. It seems like the 1975 setting was just another pointless hipster filmmaker wallowing in kistch (see 8MM, LET ME IN, etc), but in fact it is a point in history where technology had yet to make the big leap to personal computers, cell phones and all of the other things that would bring the rest of the world to a little Alpine village. It adds a sense of claustrophobia and makes police work much more primitive.

Yep, that's all I'm going to give you for the plot. While the cinematography is simply stunning the best thing about the film is the structure and editing. Rarely does a film come along in which time is manipulated so cleverly and the editing of scenes are very specifically made to give the audience enough information to think that they might just have figured out the truth, only to have you guessing again the next minute. Is she really a hellborn succubi, or is there some deeper, more twisted human plot? Director Michael Steiner and writer Michael Sauter, with editors Ueli Christen and Benjamin Fueter have very carefully crafted this film minute-by-minute, dropping pieces to the puzzle every couple of minutes along the way until the very end where all of the pieces fall into place.

Well, almost the very end. There is that wrap-around segment that just feels tacked-on and a little cheesy and adds nothing to the film, even detracts a bit from the strong finish. Ironically the only real problems I have with the film is that is almost too gorgeously photographed, as if they were so proud of the scenery that they felt that having any darkness would be an insult to the countryside. While it's creepy, engaging, and has some seriously nasty stuff going on (including a few rape scenes), it's never really scary. Some deep, textured shadows go a long way to build atmosphere. Still, finding a movie that's scary these days is a rare thing indeed, and this film does offer that other rare thing, a horror-thriller that is really well laid-out and keeps you guessing to the end.

Sadly Steiner's follow up that is now in production is the (groan) horror-comedy THE MISS SWITZERLAND MASSACRE, in which a killer is stalking a beauty pageant. I guess everyone wants to get on the teen-comedy-with-fake-blood bandwagon after PIRANHA (2010) made a killing. Dammit.

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