‘The Noonday Witch’ (‘Polednice’): Karlovy Vary Review

Noonday Witch Still 1 - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Barletta

Noonday Witch Still 1 - Publicity - H 2016

Don’t blame it on the sunshine.

Based on a Czech fairy tale, this sinister summertime psycho-horror story mostly takes place under a sweltering midday sun.

Blazing sunshine and golden cornfields are not traditional ingredients for horror movies, but such is the visually striking backdrop to this supernatural nerve-jangler from the young Czech director Jiri Sadek, making an assured feature debut while still in his twenties. Blending timeless folklore elements with contemporary psycho-drama, The Noonday Witch lacks the grisly shock factor of much modern horror, but its slick HBO-backed production values and glossy 35mm look could boost its export potential. Already released domestically, Sadek’s handsome thriller screened in Karlovy Vary’s East of the West competition strand last week and should travel on to further festivals, especially those with genre-friendly leanings.

The blueprint for The Noonday Witch is an 1853 poem by Karel Jaromir Erben, based on ancient Slavic folklore, about a mother who idly threatens to hand her wayward son over to the phantom menace of the title, but ends up smothering him to death herself. Universally famous across the Czech Republic and neighboring Slovakia, Erben’s macabre ballad later inspired an 1896 symphonic poem by Antonin Dvorak.

In screenwriter Michal Samir’s modernized adaptation, flame-haired single mother Eliska (Ana Geislerova) moves back to her late husband’s home village in the bucolic Czech heartlands. Although finances are tight for recently widowed Eliska and her young daughter Anetka (Karolina Lipowska), they settle into a crumbling rural cottage surrounded by rolling farmland, with help from a sympathetic band of locals. But as the sweltering summer heat wave builds, Eliska falls prey to mounting pressures, from the bullying sexual advances of boozy neighbors to the sinister warnings of the mayor’s wife Anezka (Daniela Kolarova) a mentally fragile crone who spent years in an asylum after murdering her own child. The curse of the Noonday Witch, she cautions, is about to strike again.

Sadek loads up the film’s latter half with jumps, bumps and nightmarish visions, settling for a comfortable level of creeping dread more than full-blooded horror. The focus on the destructive power of grief, and unspoken tensions over secrets between mother and child, invite parallels with the recent superior Australian shocker The Babadook. That said, some of the scary jolts feel a little forced, the knotty plot lacks logic, and the implied psychological explanations for Eliska’s paranormal encounters do not really stand up to scrutiny.

But while it is not wholly satisfying dramatically, The Noonday Witch is ripe with sensory pleasure. Geislerova, a kind of Czech version of Jessica Chastain, is a major marquee name domestically and always brings a brittle intensity to the screen. Jan Pjena Novotny’s suble art direction keeps the time and place agreeably vague, just as folkloric fables should. And Alexander Surkala’s luscious 35mm cinematography is a blazing patchwork of sun-bronzed beauty, transforming the Czech hinterlands into a parched Garden of Eden.

Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Production company: Barletta

Cast: Aaa Geislerova, Karolina Lipowska, Daniela Kolarova, Jiri Strebl, Zdenek Mucha

Director: Jiri Sadek

Screenplay: Michal Samir, inspired by the poem by Karel Jaromír Erben

Producer: Matej Chlupacek

Cinematographer: Alexander Surkala

Editor:  Michal Lansky

Music: Ben Corrigan

Art Director: Jan Pjena Novotny

Sales company: Barletta, Prague

Not rated, 90 minutes