Moloch implements fascinating ideas about trauma and possession, yet it leaves them and its most striking images to its last act, making the journey a bit tiresome.
For those who have paid attention or have subscribed to the horror streaming service Shudder, we all have noticed that their original content each year gets better and better. For what has transpired in the year, there have been multiple surprises at the top of this year’s horror catalog. There are Adams trio’s punky witch story (Hellbender), Igor Legarreta’s lovely and entrancing vampiric tale (All the Moons), and the film Phil Tippett has been working on forever (Mad God), amongst others. There are a few other films that are not as good as the aforementioned ones yet contain intriguing ideas and facets that make them worth the watch (See For Me, Revealer, The Seed). Then there’s Nico van den Brink’s latest feature, Moloch, which blends some folk horror totallings with a family curse and a somewhat of a haunted house story. The problem is that it leaves exciting ideas and the most striking images to its last act, making the journey quite dragging.
Moloch sets itself in the present day, even though it has a 90s-esque visual sensibility. It follows Betriek (Sallie Harmsen), who lives near a peat bog in the North of the Netherlands. There’s something special in that bog, but the nearby townsfolk treat it as a curse, since “preserved” corpses from many centuries ago are buried there. Nevertheless, some archeologists, led by Jonas (Alexandre Willaume), want to dig there, and Betriek doesn’t mind. She’s so on board that she will even translate the findings and even “sugar coat” any concerns the townsfolk might have regarding such exploration.
They are scared of what may reside beneath the earth if the bodies might one day rise to condemn those who reside nearby. Then, one day, Betriek sees something amidst the shadowy mist outside her mother’s house. A research team member runs up to the house with a knife and rambles that “he’s sorry,” and that “they’re making him” do such acts. She now knows that the curse might actually be real and that the souls of the buried corpses might not want to be dug up.
However, Betriek feels two different types of chills down her spine: the shock of the attack and the sensation of deja vu. Yet, in that specific scene, something weird happens. There isn’t a thrilling sensation: the characters may have chills running down their spines, but the viewer doesn’t come close to being frightened. The way director Nico van den Brink directs the scene doesn’t allow the tension to build because of the creaky editing and sparse framing. In addition, Betriek doesn’t seem interested in protecting her daughter or her mother from the intruder, which seems quite unbelievable and put me off the film for a few minutes.
This isn’t a “don’t go into the cabin” remark that audiences yell to the characters on screen; it made me question if there were other takes of that same scene. With this simple yet intriguing premise of a cursed land slowly haunting a family, there come themes of possession, the past living within the earth (a concept seen not so long ago in Charlotte Colbert’s directorial debut, She Will), trauma, and recognition of reminiscing perils. The film’s first act focuses on setting up the aspect of a curse “haunting” the family, and Betriek mocking the reality of that being true.
Those first few minutes don’t lead to something grand or significant; we just learn bits and pieces about each family member. The best scenes in this act are the ones where you see these people connect with one another – their chemistry is palpable, and credit goes to their performances. The main problems, however, are situated on what comes after that. Some movies are considered to be slow burns, as they take their time to develop their stories and concepts. Moloch implements haunted house and folk horror trappings, but the overall project has a simple premise and vision, which is also noticeable in its short 99-minute runtime. It’s like waiting for a joke’s punchline, but its development is way too long – hence, getting us a tad disconnected with what happens, as it keeps dragging its feet. And when the punchline arrives, it can be a bit funny, but the journey to it tired you. That is what happens when Moloch leaves all of its best ideas and most striking and pulling images to its last few minutes.
It’s disappointing because, in the second act, there is a scene in which the townsfolk’s kids do a play about a demon rising from the ashes to haunt a local village. This scene made me anxious to see what would arrive in the third act because it adds a “somewhat” foreshadowing factor into the story. There’s tension and great visuals throughout that sequence. In my opinion, it is probably the best scene in the film. It contains what Moloch lacked for most of its runtime: a thrilling sensation that something’s crawling beneath the earth to haunt you, and that the town is sort of looking down on you because there’s a curse on your back. There’s a better film within the realms of the play rather than what is implemented during its beginnings. As the characters continue to have conversations, the viewer’s mind goes wild with the possibilities of where it might be headed. Yet, as it continues to hold its cards until the last couple of minutes, and it isn’t a worthwhile hand, one just tunes out.
Moloch, an official selection of the Fantasia International Film Festival, will be available exclusively on Shudder in the US, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand on Thursday, July 21, 2022.