Day 31 (HAPPY HALLOWEEN!): Female-Helmed Horror Movies For October
The Book of Birdie
Directed by Elizabeth E. Schuch
Written by Elizabeth E. Schuch and Anami Tara Shucart
1 hour, 31 minutes
I watched it on iTunes.
Behold: an independent horror feature with an all-female cast, written and directed by women! Birdie (the wide-eyed Ilirida Memedovski) is brought to live in a dying convent by her grandmother. It’s unclear whether she’s protecting herself or Birdie with this separation; Birdie is quite the strange teenager. At the convent, she encounters a small order of sweet, devout nuns and befriends the caretaker’s daughter, Julia (Kitty Fenn, who I seriously thought was Olivia Thirlby until I looked her up but she’s also a terrific actor). They have a sweet little romance that isn’t the main thrust of the movie but adds to that coming of age, finding your way vibe. Schuch doesn’t make a thing of it being a romance between two girls, even at a convent. Breaking with typical Catholic horror movie tradition, the nuns here are loving and patient and compassionate, even most of the ghosts. No one is trying to abuse or punish her. They’re just trying to help Birdie find comfort and, they hope, a calling to take her own vows one day. But Birdie has this worshipful thing with blood and creepy little creatures that come out of her… Is she targeted by something malevolent? Or does her comics and girl-loving heart just not fit in at a Catholic convent?
This reminds me of a short film I wrote in college, this wacky character study called “Beata” about a young Catholic girl obsessed with becoming a saint. I imagine I’d cringe if I went back to watch it now, like most of us would with our film school output. Our professors cautioned us to try our best there at USC so we can fail privately until we’ve had enough practice to become successful in telling the stories we wanted to tell, to make the ideas in our heads actually come out on screen. There’s something about this gorgeous mass of confusion of a film that has that film school quality. It’s certainly professional in all the ways. It looks great. The acting is great. The music is great. The characters are great. But there’s something very shrug-inducing about the whole thing, especially the ending. Schuch is explorative but I don’t quite get what she’s trying to say.
There are a few truly shocking moments, and its obsession with blood is admirable. The little island underneath her bed that Birdie creates is so charming and relatable, even if it has sinister tones. I did so love that Catholic nuns get a chance to be the good guys in a horror movie, even if the church absolutely has earned its terrible reputation. It’s a powerful business that ruthlessly protected itself for years at all costs, but I do believe there was also lots of good done on the ground. It’s assured in its look and its world building, so even though I didn’t adore it, I imagine it will still be appreciated by plenty of others. I found it too confusing and cold to be all that emotionally engaging. It isn’t aiming for scary. It’s just creepy, but I didn’t vibe with the magical realism creepiness here, much as I have been game for that approach elsewhere.
This is absolutely a movie made by a woman. Birdie is delighted by blood, but not from bloodletting or murdering. Instead, there are recurring motifs about bloody noses and periods. Or is it a miscarriage? Due to the magical realism vibe, the film is never clear on that but it does seem to hint that something terrible happened to Birdie before her grandmother dropped her off. I’m delighted to find so many women are incorporating periods into their horror movies. It’s such a crucial part of the female experience and it’s so rarely discussed openly, let alone with as much relish as Schuch brings to it. And oh man, did I adore that nun in the tree.
This is the debut feature from UK-based Schuch. She has extensive experience in art departments, including “Wonder Woman” and is also the Production Designer on “The Book of Birdie.” It makes so much sense that she’s moving from art department to directing with this one, as it is so visual and unique looking. Where it runs aground are story issues. Mysteries are tricky beasts. Too straight forward and it’s unsatisfying. Too many unanswered questions and it’s confusing. This ended up on the confusing end of the spectrum. But again, like many of the other movies I’ve seen this month, I have to admire its ambition, even if I didn’t fall all the way in love.