Terrence Malick meets Robert Eggers in You Won’t Be Alone, a bloody—and bloody good—vampire tale that squeezes quite a few new twists out of fundamentally familiar material. Rapturously beautiful and sufficiently different from its bloodsucking brethren to engage fresh interest in aspects of the undead, Australian director Goran Stolevski’s very confident debut feature goes places its generic brethren never thought of visiting. This Sundance 2022 entry in the World Dramatic Competition section should serve its purpose of putting its creator on the map while providing any number of fresh twists on familiar material. Commercial release via Focus Features is currently pegged for April 1.
Stolevski, whose Would You Look At Her won the 2018 Sundance best short film prize, goes far beyond the normal boundaries of generic blood-sucker yarns to bring historical, ethnic and cultural considerations to a table over-spilling with goodies both familiar and esoteric. At first it’s not at all clear where the film is going with its unappetizing basic ingredients of baby-snatching, blood-sucking and 19th century rural miserablism. But once it becomes clear that the filmmaker has things on his mind other than just gore and weirdness, a very different manner of vampire tale alluringly asserts itself.
The writer-director was born in Macedonia and that’s where he sets this wild tale of a young peasant girl who is kidnapped, takes over the body of a woman she accidentally kills and is thus transformed into a witch by some manner of ancient spirit. The isolated mountainous setting could scarcely be more forlorn, nor do the inhabitants seem at all likely to escape the very basic rural existences their tribes have adhered to for centuries. For a while, one is pressed to wonder why we’re being encouraged to take an interest in these ornery and backward characters, so disconnected are they from temporal concerns.
The first half-hour or more could try the patience of genre audiences and even native-speakers might face some difficulties, as the dialogue is claimed to be rigorously 19th century. But even this detail is in tune with the “you’ve never seen this before” aspect of the resolute and bloody tale, the roots of which are both esoteric and deeply embedded in the little-changed land, a seemingly matriarchal society whose inhabitants are deeply superstitious and would make hillbillies look like fashion icons.
The first indication that leading character is mutating into some other genre of being is that she grows stupendously long and dark fingernails, which she discreetly hides as best she can. One’s patience is tested for some time, as the “witch-mama” surreptitiously staggers around as she tries to adapt to her wayward new talents and appetites, or “woman-madness,” as one peasant terms it. For a good while, it’s not at all clear that You Won’t Be Alone is going anywhere other than to some concocted Zombieland in which the leading lady will be forever preoccupied with finding new victims to fuel her fires.
Eventually, however, the film finds a new gear, one that positions the story somewhere between a hoary folk tale and an investigation that delves more mysteriously into darker aspects of human nature. When the leading lady meets a splendidly athletic young man and eventually, against any instinct she’s previously felt, decides to let nature take its course with him, the result is some brutal raw drama that casts an intriguingly ambiguous light on a curse and malign tradition (which is where Eggers comes in) that proves difficult to extinguish entirely.
It’s a horror story rooted both in ethnic tradition and historical fact. Stolevski attacks it boldly, expanding normally quite limited zombie and witchcraft clichés into something related to a real place with a specific cultural background. Making the story female-centric, especially when it involves bringing a child into this forlorn world, adds another dimension, a decision further trumped by the succession of different actresses playing the central role. It was a risky choice that pays off splendidly.
The icing on the cake is a camera style that clearly owes its existence to Malick and his various cinematographers of the past couple of decades. Matthew Chuang’s camera is constantly in motion, floating, darting, swirling, dashing inward and out, up and down, moving with the actors and sweeping everything along in a whirlwind of activity and almost always beautiful synch with where the actors are and where they’re headed next. The film virtually seems choreographed.