One thing that’s stayed in favor over the past few decades in horror, regardless of how subgenres within it fall in and out of popularity, is the prominence of the Cult movie. When the slasher disappeared from the multiplex, the cult movie remained. When found footage took over totally, the cult movie endured. When the zombie or vampire movie swept over the genre like a plague, the cult movie remained popular. And, finally, with the rise of “elevated” horror, the cult movie had reached untold heights, as practically every major horror success in the genre contains some reference to it. Perhaps that’s due to just how primal the fear of the mob, or the realization that one is a member of said mob, is; or maybe its because the blind adherence to ideology is once again manifesting a tangible body count in the US, but it shows no sign of abating anytime soon. Malgorzata Szumowska’s The Other Lamb may not offer much thematically to help itself stand out from the pack, but it distinguishes itself with a great lead performance by Raffey Cassidy and a heaping helping of style.
The Other Lamb begins with shots of drowned women clad in white, before giving way to a shot of two young girls sitting and chatting near a waterfall. They’re dressed in blue wool dresses, befitting a colorful Amish community, and one would be forgiven for assuming that this is a period film from those first moments. But when they return to their camp, bits and pieces of modernity creep in: there’s a green trailer, adorned with a Christ-like face, placed in the middle of the camp, surrounded by red-wearing women doing chores. Eventually, things are made clearer: The girls in blue are Daughters, the women in red are their Mothers, and their Father, the only man in the group, is the Shepherd (Michiel Huisman, best known for being the replacement Daario on Game of Thrones). Our lead is young Selah (Cassiday), a girl on the verge of womanhood, struggling with her beliefs and her growing awareness of the world that she’s been born into.
Her pastoral surroundings are gorgeous, filmed with aplomb by cinematographer Michal Englert, and their little church — a section of forest tapered off by cloth rope wound around trees like a spiderweb cage — is bizarrely lovely. It’s there that they listen to flowery sermons and participate in rituals where the Shepherd smears sheep’s blood on their faces as if it were Ash Wednesday at a satanist Butcher’s shop. There is, of course, a dark corruption hiding behind all of this: The Daughters are being groomed to become the next Mothers, and those “impure” are banished to live in exile, hidden away in isolated cabins (three guesses as to what this impurity is). But the law is coming for the Shepherd and his flock, and the cult has to abruptly flee their home, which causes Selah to question her faith even more. Things don’t turn out too well for them, of course, and it’s fascinating and engaging to watch how.
Cassidy’s work has always been solid, but her sturdy blankness has typically been used to buoy the work of other brilliant, more flashy, performers — think Barry Keoghan in The Killing of a Sacred Deer or, though we can debate this until the end of time, Natalie Portman in Vox Lux. Here, she’s center-stage and admirably rises to the occasion, with her steely-eyed gaze giving off suggesting a depth of feeling that’s only starting to break through from within her character’s carefully-molded worldview (I found myself often astonished at the variety of face types amongst the group of women here, and how striking they were when put on screen together). Her ascent to worldliness and the collapse of her obedience to her “savior” feels roughly akin to Milton’s Satan: the main differences here that there’s a definite end to that conflict, and it ends with the forces of authoritarianism in a very different position than in Paradise Lost.
Szumowska’s style owes a great debt to Nicholas Roeg, whose careful zooms and naturalism in something like Picnic at Hanging Rock are smartly echoed here. There are, of course, bits and pieces of the modern horror landscape captured here (quick-cut dream montages of still nearly still surrealist images, clipped screams), but those looking to pigeonhole her work as being derivative of other in-genre like Ari Aster or Robert Eggers are doing a disservice to how smart her choices here are often are. There are a number of missteps along the way — the dialogue is often weirdly truncated and flat at important moments, and a number of those aforementioned acknowledgments of modern horror distract get away from her — but The Other Lamb‘s tone is genuinely creepy and icky in a way that really gets under your skin. It’s executed with a great deal of smart style and polish, and well worth a look, though those that seek it out will probably need to take a long shower afterward to get rid of that grimy feeling.