Cults have long been a staple for movies. Hollywood is obsessed with films about cults. Whether you like it or not, you can attribute this to Charles Manson becoming the poster boy of leading a cult and getting them to do whatever you tell them to. He cornered that market.
Across all genres, we’ve seen myriad of cults depicted on-screen. The most infamous genre to gift (or shock) audiences with cult movements is horror. Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man, Suspiria, Hostel, Martyrs and more recently Midsommar. The list goes on and on.
So why is it that horror is the biggest culprit of this anthropology? It’s because it’s alien to us. Well, the majority of us. A cult can’t exist without willing participants. For the average moviegoer, these unusual beliefs and social groups could exist, or they really do exist. It’s unconventional. They challenge us to look deep into our psyche.
Next up to add to the ever-growing list of horror films based on bizarre cult activity is from Polish director Małgorzata Szumowska in her English-language debut The Other Lamb. Right in time for Halloween too! Let’s get spoopy!
Starring Salford-born breakthrough actor Raffey Cassidy and Dutch hunk and Game of Thrones sensation Michiel Huisman, Szumowska’s horror composition follows The Flock – an all woman group living in rural North America led by messiah-like figure, Shepherd.
Selah (Cassidy) is a teenager born into Shepherd’s (Huisman) Manson Family-esque ensemble. She has no real knowledge nor experience of life outside of what she has been apart of for her entire life. Despite this, Selah is curious. As a young girl ready to embrace womanhood, Selah begins to question her reality and the god complex teachings of the only male in her compound. At its core, The Other Lamb is a coming-of-age tale. An adolescent awakening.
Led by Huisman’s Jesus Christ-looking quality, Shepherd is indeed the father, son and Holy Spirit. A leader. A god. The older women of The Flock – The Wives – shower him with love, food and their bodies. Without hesitation, The Wives are beckoned by Shepherd. “You’re so beautiful” is a quote Shepherd uses all too often before his sexual escapades. A classic trope of a man who is delusional enough to think that this phrase grants him total control over a woman’s body. A devious trick used to obtain sexual favours. In this instance, it works. Shepherd is playing the field. The whole damn field! And none of his avid worshippers bat an eyelid to this hypersexual behaviour with multiple women in the group. It’s awkward to watch. But that’s the message Szumowska’s film is attempting to convey. Shepherd is “a typical bloke” who only thinks with his genitalia.
Meanwhile, Cassidy’s character begins to ponder over the questionable and often abusive behaviour of her maker. Yes that’s right, Shepherd is Selah’s father. Sadly for Selah, her mother died during her birth. She has grown up without a biological mother, but is instead nurtured by the older women of The Flock. Still seen as “pure” in the eyes of Shepherd, Selah is yet to blossom into complete womanhood. All you guys out there – if you don’t catch my drift, she’s yet to start menstruating. Like I mentioned earlier, this is a coming-of-age story. It doesn’t shy away from giving you all the grizzly, yet perfectly natural details.
After receiving a unexpected visit from a mysterious outsider, Shepherd announces The Flock must leave their paradise in search of “a new Eden”. The “mysterious outsider” being a local police officer, abundantly level-headed enough to see that this large group of women living out in the woods with just the one male and a flock of sheep is a bit absurd. If you were to ask me, there’s no real hope for The Flock. Their search for Eden is preposterous. Sanctuary is more than residence and location. The poor women who blindly worship the ground that Shepherd walks upon won’t find true sanctuary.
And so begins The Flock’s own Duke of Edinburgh-like expedition begins! Only this DofE is loaded with singing in unison, birth, death, verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, every conceivable type of abuse, female menstruation and brimming with tests of peoples’ gag reflexes.
I should note, by the time you’ve reached The Flock’s search for their new home you’re over midway through the film and almost into the third and final act. Tension is tediously and slowly built, as is the storytelling. Nothing of great importance happens up until this point. And that for me is one the biggest flaws of Szumowska’s film. The storytelling is severely weak. Instead of concise narrative and captivating performances, we’re given an assortment of long and drawn-out shots of the environment in which The Flock and Shepherd inhabit. Granted these shots are absolutely breathtaking. Michal Englert’s cinematography is flawless. Shot largely in Ireland, our eyes are gifted to one gorgeous frame after another. Englert’s ice-cold gaze encapsulates the true wilderness of Ireland’s County Wicklow.
Unfortunately that’s about as much as this film has going for it. It’s a style over substance flex from Szumowska and Englert.
Szumowska’s unorthodox horror film is a one with a powerful, emotive and thought-provoking message that never really delivers on what it tries to emit. It doesn’t pack enough punch. There’s no oomph! Rather plentiful with pretentious visuals and dreamlike sequences. Its slow burn storytelling promises to lead up to a big finale, but instead flatlines.
The Other Lamb acts a female-centric laud in the wake of the Me Too and Time’s Up movements that is hollow in its attempts. An edgy and transgressive female revenge piece that objectifies and paints men in a bad light. Now normally, I wouldn’t have any issue with that. I don’t defend patriarchy. Fuck patriarchy. I’m all up for a female revenge flick as long as it’s tastefully done. Such as Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge. I just think what writer C.S. McMullen has to offer is shallow. The Other Lamb focuses too much on the suffering endured in this film, rather than telling the story from two opposing perspectives. It’s bias.
The film’s two leading characters are one-dimensional. Not multifaceted or showcasing any raw emotion, Selah and Shepherd the lack any real conviction in depicting a tale of male entitlement and the female forces that can bring them down. The acting from both Cassidy and Huisman is positively strong, but their respective narratives are paper-thin.
On one hand you have Selah – a young woman exposed to promiscuity and abusive behaviour. Her initially naivety which soon develops into challenge and rebellion acts a metaphor and advocacy of women speaking up about their experiences with sexual abuse sexual harassment. And on the other hand, you have Shepherd – a Charles Manson-type individual who acts as a blatant metaphor of the prominent men in the world who have committed sex crimes and extreme patriarchal control. It’s a fruitless representation of the injustice of female rights that plays like it was made by a “radical” film school student.
Still if there’s anything valid to take away from The Other Lamb, it’s that in modern society in the aftermath of infamous Manson Family murders, most folk are now wise enough to not be easily influenced into joining a cult…apart from the Church of Scientology of course.
Horror, Drama | USA, 2019 | 15| MUBI 16th October 2020 DVD 26th October (UK) | MUBI | Dir.Malgorzata Szumowska | Michiel Huisman, Raffey Cassidy, Denise Gough