“Satan said, ‘I am better than him. You created me from fire and him from clay.” ~ Quran 7:12 quoted in Roh.
“Ephemerality is ours.” ~ demon in Roh.
“The next time you think you see a a demon, shoot it.” ~ The Wind.
Warning, I tried to strike a balance between discussion and not revealing too much, but there are plot elements and such. You might want to see Roh / Soul, The Wind and/or Hereditary before reading.
A single mother raises her children in the woods on the outskirts of a village. Her children bring a strange girl home and things start to go wrong. A woman on the plains of New Mexico living with the loss of a child endures the unwanted confidences of her pregnant neighbor and the sound of the endless wind. A grieving woman in the suburbs is surrounded by family and haunted by family. For each of them, there’s something out there and there’s something equally troubling in the house. Three isolated women in three movies grieving their losses—a husband, a child, a mother—are afflicted by evil and their lives become totally consumed by isolation, loneliness, alienation and grief. They are afflicted by demons of the forest, prairie and suburbs who whisper, suggest and plant ideas, who take a form by possession or illusion that seem familiar and reveal something about the women and possibly us.
Roh or Soul (2020) is a well-acted, atmospheric and creepy horror movie. It’s director Emir Ezwan’s first feature and beautifully shot by Saifuddin Musa. It is also Malaysia’s entry into the 2021 Academy Awards. We live in a time when genre is ascendent and a low budget horror movie can be nominated for an Academy Award. But we also live in a time when specific kinds of studio genre movies are ascendant. So while Roh is a beautifully made, thoughtful horror movie—one respected enough in Malaysia to be up for a reputable award—it’s still a dandelion at risk in the expanding “content” monoculture. Roh fits with the recent efflorescence of folk horror films globally. And Roh reminds me of some other movies about isolated, lonely, grieving and alienated women, movies like Emma Tammi’s The Wind (2018) and Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018).
Roh is set sometime in Malaysia’s past. A woman (Farah Ahmad) raises her teen daughter, Along (Mhia Farhana), and her younger son, Angah (Harith Haziq), in the forest. Her children call her, “Mak,” or “mom.” Her husband is gone. Possibly he left them; probably he is dead. She is angry about it. It could be the anger of grief. It could be the anger of abandonment. Her children miss him. They live with their loss lonely and removed from other people who live just across the river. Mak seems determined not to see help from anyone, at least until she is desperate. While checking the family traps, the children see a dead deer hanging with its neck wedged in the crook of a tree. When Angah suggests the deer could feed them for a week, Along tells Angah not even to look at the carcass, though she seems to fear attracting a tiger more than anything. On the way back to their house, they encounter a young girl (Putri Qaseh) all alone. They bring her home. She doesn’t speak. They call her, “Adik,” “little sister.” They don’t know, but we do, that the girl is being tracked by a hunter (Namron). That night, after dinner and bickering among the family, Mak tells the children never to take anything from the jungle and never to believe anything they see or hear there. She then tells them a story about a spirit, Hantu Pemburu / Ghost Hunter, that hunts deer and children. She tells them to listen for the sounds of its ghost dogs and the calling of nightjars. She warns them that if they see the spirit they will fall ill. And she tells them the only way to escape it is to strike two stones together and call out, “Grandpa, bring us their hearts.” They must trick the spirit by telling it that they want what it most wants. Angah is rapt. Along presents a brave front. Mak is amused and things seem better with the family. At least until Adik finally speaks, saying, “It’s here.” And then rocks rain on the roof.
The next morning, they awake to discover the girl sitting in their doorway eating a bird, blood everywhere. She tells them, “When the moon is full, all of you will die.” Then she slits her own throat.
They take the girl’s body to a clearing in the forest hoping someone bury her. When they return home they find an old woman, Tok (June Lojong), examining the rocks that lie on the ground all around the house. Tok was passing by on her way to forage in the swamp when she saw the rocks. She wears a sarong with a pattern that implies ritual power. Tok tries to warn the family that bad things are going to happen, but Mak is so desperate for adult company she interrupts, inviting Tok to stay and have coffee or tea with her. Tok declines, but says she will be on a nearby hill in case the family needs help. And they soon need help, because Along encounters what appears to be the dead girl under their house and falls ill.
The next day, the hunter comes by carrying a massive spear and asks them if they’ve seen a young girl. He says she’s his daughter. Suspicious of his intentions, Mak tells him they haven’t seen her. Angah worries that he’s a father missing his child. Along, however, agrees with their mother that maybe the girl ran from him for a reason. Mak tells them that “maybe he’s the cause” of all the strange things that have been happening. “We are living in a a dangerous time. Many people are desperate and feel unsafe,” she says.
As they work on curing Along, Tok warns Angah, “The things you can’t see or can’t hold can’t hurt you. Only through humans can you be hurt.” She warns him not to trust everyone. And she is right as far as it goes, but humans trust and mistrust the wrong people all the time. Mak and her family do the best they can, but it’s not enough. Mak needs more than her family can give. She’s lonely and invites Tok to stay with them while the hunter stalks the woods. I won’t share the whole story but it is a horror movie. The family are given signs and warnings they misinterpret, misunderstand and ignore. Not because they are stupid, but because their understanding is partial, their knowledge is partial, they need more time and they are in pain. Their interpretation of what is happening and what to do about it isn’t inevitable, but it is predictable and understandable.
In Emma Tammi’s The Wind, Lizzy’s husband is still alive, but he’s gone frequently because it’s only the two of them in a house on the prairie. Lizzy (Caitlin Gerard) and Isaac (Ashley Zuckerman) are living on a homestead in Nineteenth Century New Mexico. They have mostly recovered from a recent miscarriage. They seem to have a good marriage. Isaac reads The Mysteries of Udolpho and Frankenstein to Lizzy and that sounds pretty good to me. They are competent and complimentary. Then neighbors move within sight. Emma (Julie Goldani Telles) seems nice enough, but Gideon (Dylan McTee) is distant. He reminds me of Mose in The Office, but actively a jerk. Isaac thinks they’re weird, but Lizzy is glad to have people around. She tells Isaac, “In the cities, strangers stay strangers, but here we don’t have that luxury.”
Lizzy ends up taking care of Emma because Emma needs help. Emma is convinced there’s something out on the prairie, in the wind. And she’s pregnant. Lizzy remembers when she felt like that while she was pregnant, and especially when Isaac was away from home. But Lizzy becomes more ambivalent about her new neighbors. It doesn’t help that Emma is infatuated with Isaac and doesn’t bother to hide it. In fact, she wants to talk about it with Lizzy because there is no one else to talk to. For his part, Isaac does not seem interested in Emma. I appreciate that the focus of the film is not Isaac actually straying, but Lizzy’s resentment of Emma. Her problems are her anger at Emma, her inability to escape Emma, the miscarriage, and, well, the demons of the prairie. While Gerard does amazing work and is the heart of the film, I did appreciate Zuckerman’s quiet bewilderment as Isaac. Zuckerman doesn’t have a lot of dialogue or screen time, but he does a good job of conveying Isaac’s love for Lizzy and his disinterest in Emma romantically.
One day, Gideon tells them that Emma has shot herself. The men send Lizzy to perform a post-mortem caesarian section, but it fails. Afterwards, Lizzy starts to think Emma was right, that there is something out there in the wind. When Isaac helps Gideon leave, she is alone with her demons. Lizzy starts to think there’s something wrong with the land, that there’s something out there on the prairie. She read a pamphlet a wandering preacher (Miles Anderson) gave her, Demons of the Prairie, when she and Isaac had first arrived in the territory. It warns of demons like, “Succorbenoth, bringer of jealous thoughts.” Isaac thinks the pamphlet just frightens people into seeing things that aren’t there and believing things that aren’t true. But Lizzy discovers the same pamphlet in a chest of Emma’s things that Gideon leaves behind. While Isaac is away, she meets the preacher again and suggests he take shelter in Emma and Gideon’s abandoned house. Lizzy warns him to stay inside at night and not to open the door to anyone, even her. But she doesn’t take her own advice and opens the door that night. She can’t leave someone in danger, and, like Mak, she is lonesome and she needs help.
The Gutter’s Angela Englert has written more about Hereditary here, but in a different context than the isolation and alienation of grief and how demons lead us to do it to ourselves. Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) should come with a warning for adults that it features frank depictions of family dynamics, loss of parents and loss of children.* Basically, if you are 17, it’s probably fine—maybe not horrifying at all. Toni Collette is a force of nature as the protagonist, Annie Graham. In Hereditary, Annie’s husband Steve (Liam Neeson) is present and her family kind of lives in the forest, but it’s a suburb. Like Mak and Lizzie she is isolated, though self-isolated, and grieving. Annie is angry in her grief over the death of her difficult, secretive and abusive mother. Like Isaac, Steve wants to be there for her, but her impulse is to retreat rather than burden her family. And her needs and feelings are impossible for her to articulate. Annie channels them through her art, a series of dioramas recreating daily life, as she prepares for a gallery show.
Their children are respond in different ways. The youngest, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), self-soothes with tongue clicks and brings home things—including the head of a bird—to make into mixed media sculptures. The eldest, Peter (Alex Wolff), seems more solid but is still struggling. Annie can’t help resenting all of them and feeling guilty about it. She can’t help resenting her mother and her mother’s intervention in her relationship with Charlie, and feeling angry and guilty about that. And she is terrified of what could do when she sleepwalks. Annie wants to be alone. And after Charlie dies in an accident she can’t help blaming Peter for, Annie feels even more guilty and even more alienated. So she accepts help and support from an outsider—Joan (Ann Dowd), a woman in her grief support group. Steve is horrified when Annie recreates the accident in a diorama. Peter is afflicted by Charlie’s apparent presence. But Joan tells Annie that she can speak with her daughter again and teaches her how to perform a séance. As with Roh and The Wind, there is much more.
Annie doesn’t meet her wise stranger foraging in the forest or offering pamphlets on the trail, but in a parking lot. Still, the trouble she has and the damage that is done has a very similar source to the troubles of Mak and Lizzy. Something bad is happening to her family. She is isolated, aching and angry. Along and Angah agree that Mak was less cranky when their father was still around. Lizzy is alone with her demons much of the time. And Annie is compressed into fury, fear and pain by her losses, her inability to ever have “closure” with her mother, the presence of her family and her alienation from them. As with Mak and Lizzy, her knowledge is incomplete and her choices, though understandable, make tragedy inevitable.
I like stories like these. Stories where it’s hard to feel superior and safe as the audience because being “smart” is not necessarily enough. Stories where people have incomplete information or incomplete understanding because people are finite. Stories where people are doing the best they can. Strange things are happening. It’s hard to know what to do or who to trust. Mak, Lizzy and Annie are desperate and lonely for the company of and help from other adults. And they make mistakes that might not even seem like mistakes.
The demons of the forest, prairie and suburbs might take on familiar forms to reveal something their victims have within them. They might tempt people or offer people the possibility of becoming cruel in their isolation, grief and the difficulty of their lives. In Roh, The Wind and Hereditary, the women all face this danger to greater and lesser degrees. In Hereditary no one can help Annie but herself, but she doesn’t know how and she faces the most clear cut external attack. In The Wind, the demons of the prairie are insidious. In Roh, Tok tells us not to trust anyone and not to trust anything we can’t hold or touch. But people trust anyway. What else can we do? And when we are hurt, desperate or angry, we don’t make the best decisions. In Roh, evil tells us that its game is fair. “You were given many signs,” it says. And, “All we do is whisper.” It tells us that it cannot destroy us directly—that it whispers and we don’t have to listen or obey, that we don’t have to destroy each other and ourselves. And maybe this evil, this one time, is telling the truth, even if it is to gloat and inflict one final injury. Roh reminds us that we can be more terrifying than demons but we don’t have to be.
*Also, if you watch it on dvd there are some nice features about design in the film, which is as much about art as it is about grief, family and demonic possession.
Carol Borden thinks a lone tree burning in the forest is rarely a good sign. She also thinks these movies would also be interesting to watch with Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014), Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015), Kihachiro Kawamoto’s Oni / The Demon (1972), and maybe even Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s Goodnight Mommy (2015).