Hidden Gem: 'Pelican Blood' Gives a Terrifying Take on Childhood Trauma

'Pelican Blood' Still — Publicity — H 2019
Courtesy of TIFF

German helmer Katrin Gebbe brings a distinctly female perspective to a dark tale of a woman going to extreme lengths to help her troubled adopted daughter.

After exploring (frighteningly) the dark mind of a psychopath in her 2013 debut Nothing Bad Can Happen — which premiered in Cannes' Un Certain Regard — German director Katrin Gebbe wanted to go deeper. "I thought, 'What makes a person evil? What does their childhood look like?'" she says.

An answer, of a sort, is in Gebbe’s second feature, Pelican Blood, which will have its world premiere Sept. 8 as a special presentation at TIFF.

Nina Hoss stars as Wiebke, a horse trainer and adoptive mother to a young Bulgarian girl. They share an idyllic life in the German countryside and want to add to it, traveling back to Bulgaria to adopt a second girl, the 6-year-old Raya. But shortly after the trip, Wiebke’s new daughter begins to act out in increasingly erratic and violent ways, claiming she is being provoked by a dark spirit. Specialists diagnose Raya with an attachment disorder brought on by early childhood trauma and suggest institutionalization. Wiebke has other ideas and begins to look beyond science and logic to find a solution, even at the risk of harm to herself or her children.

It’s a classic horror film setup — the evil child who threatens the peaceful home — but Pelican Blood is no horror movie. Or at least, it’s not a classic horror film. The movie’s central symbol, a pelican mother who feeds her young with her own blood, becomes a metaphor for Weibke’s willingness to do whatever it takes to forge a bond with her adopted child. But when Wiebke begins to carry Raya around like an infant, taking hormones to trigger breast milk production so she can nurse the 6-year-old, the film moves into darker territory. And it’s the mother who starts to look like the monster.

"I found it interesting to start the movie out as a classic drama and then, slowly, twist and twist the story toward something more disturbing, more creepy," says Gebbe. "I think one of the flaws in many horror films is that as soon as they shift away from reality, toward a fantastic or supernatural explanation, it stops being scary. Real horror should stay on the edge of reality."

Pelican Blood keeps its edge as well by continually shifting perspective between the (mostly male) world of doctors and authority figures and the (mostly female) world of esoteric rituals that Wiebke turns to as she grows more and more desperate. Both are presented as equally credible — and terrifying. "We were a lot of women on this movie — a female producer, a female director, a female lead. It is incredibly important that we got the female gaze into the film," says Gebbe. "It’s a female topic, motherhood, but rarely in cinema do you get anything but the male perspective on it."

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Sept. 7 daily issue at the Toronto Film Festival.