Brooklyn Horror Film Festival: THE BOOK OF BIRDIE

There’s an odd trend that’s been stirring recently. I can’t quite place when it began, but around the time The Babadook was released to great acclaim for being a “Freudian psychological thriller” critics and filmgoers began to sour on the idea of horror as a descriptive term for a certain kind of movie. Of course, I’m not writing about the Krampuses or Conjurings of the world; that trash is still safely off-limits, and people are denigrating it with the word “horror.” But quiet, reflective films or films that have a level of prestige behind them that also inexplicably contain scenes of horror are now something else entirely, or at least require us to consider that they might be. Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon was transformed into a thriller and “quasi-horror;” The Witch was an after-school special instead of a scary movie; and, in what is probably the peak of this absurdity, the most recent adaptation of Stephen King’s It has generated controversy over whether it — a film about an Eldritch abomination masquerading as a child-eating killer clown — should even be called a horror film at all.

Inevitably, out of the ashes of stupidity rises the dumb cousin of the phoenix: post-horror. Whether this is just The Guardian trolling or a genuine evolution of genre remains to be seen, but the effects are already being felt. Any film that diverges from the blood and guts mold of trad horror and opts for understated (or no) scares, quiet sound design, languid pacing or some combination thereof is recast as a psychological thriller or outright labeled post-horror. As a film, It Comes at Night isn’t that different from the original Night of the Living Dead; both films eschew outright jump scares for ambiguity as their primary tool to scare audiences, and both opt for stories that focus more on the horrors humans mete out on each other in the wake of tragedy than on a linear escalation of grotesqueries. But in The Guardian’s estimation, It Comes at Night isn’t trad horror like Night of the Living Dead, nor is Get Out, Splinter or The Witch. These are post-horror films reacting to the staid, tired tropes of horror. Never mind that horror is an all-encompassing term that includes everything from F.W. Murnau to Werner Herzog.

I mention this because The Book of Birdie recently closed out the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, and it’s exactly the kind of film you might be tempted to hate because the reviews are inevitably going to try to distance it from the horror film. It has all the qualities you would look for in that kind of movie. Beautiful cinematography? Check. Mostly ambient sound design? Yup. Gallons of menstrual blood? Uh…

The Book of Birdie is about a young woman left at a convent for reasons never fully explained. She’s clearly troubled but also intellectually curious and mostly innocent. When she isn’t learning the hymnals given to her by the nuns tasked with her care, she’s reading comic books or exploring the convent grounds. The problem is… she’s really troubled. Birdie bleeds profusely. The film opens with a bloody nose and then progresses into menstruation and stigmata. That in itself wouldn’t make her troubled. It’s the fact that she keeps the blood and uses it in rituals that aren’t dissimilar to a Catholic mass. But instead of worshipping a Catholic god with relics and icons that stand in for Christ, Birdie uses the remains of fetus leftover from an unexplained miscarriage early in the film as her totem of worship.

So… The Book of Birdie is going to be one of the more off-kilter indie darlings in recent memory because it toes the line on batshit crazy in all the best ways. It’s equal parts sacred and profane, proposing a chicken and egg kind of scenario: which comes first, the insanity or the saint? And first-time director Elizabeth Schuch approaches that subject in a suitably offbeat way. The film flows in a slow, hallucinatory manner, jumping between scenes of isolation when Birdie is exploring the barren, wintery convent and jubilation as she dives deep into pools of her own blood when she’s alone in her room and having visions of herself as the Catholic saint Philomena. Bridging the gap between these scenes are crude animations which add to the dreamlike quality. In total, the movie is a surprisingly accomplished and confident work for a first-time director. Even more so when you consider this is a horror film.

That’s the catch, though. The Book of Birdie is a horror film through and through. Don’t be fooled by the fact that it might be one of a breed of new horror films which critics will overhype by looking for ways to explain why it isn’t horror. It leans heavily in fantasy and drama but there isn’t anything in this film that would place it beyond other recent, similarly-minded offerings like Escape from Tomorrow and Excision. More than that, it also sits comfortably alongside blasphemous classics like Alucarda and Santanico Pandemonium. It might not go as hard on the exploitative elements, but it’s as gross and gory as anything that’s come out in the last 50 years, and it’s full of ghostly nuns. What more could you ask?

Rob Skvarla

Rob Skvarla

Robert Skvarla is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia. His focuses include conspiracy culture, fringe communities, and new religious movements. He has written for Diabolique Magazine, Atlas Obscura, and Philadelphia City Paper, and served as a programmer for the Cinedelphia Film Festival.
Rob Skvarla
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