September 23, 2022

You Won’t Be Alone negates many typical witch horror movie tropes

Sundance’s riveting horror hit You won’t be alone is a story of witches, but not in a way you’ve never seen before. Set in 19th century Macedonia, it follows the life of a young girl who is initially abducted from a village and left to grow up in near complete isolation in a cave. This may sound like a story you’ve heard before, as witch movies are pretty much a subgenre of their own.

However, with writer-director Goran Stolevsky‘s film is now receiving a well-deserved wide release from Focus Features, it’s important to establish just how inventive this film is in terms of how it upends genre conventions to become something of its own. . This not only goes through the breathtaking performances of people like Noomi Rapace, which plays the first of many forms our protagonist takes, but in the way it frames its story around humanizing characters who are often just turned into superficial monsters. He is aware of his history, both cinematic and otherwise, as he charts a path of his own.


Image via focus features

The history of witches in movies dates back to the 1922 inauguration haxan, which is considered one of the first, if not the first, films about witches. Initially rejected upon release, it gained a new appreciation for how it delved into witch mythology with multiple restorations. Since then, there have been countless stories about witches that have begun to fall into certain patterns. These are usually built around them being horrific beings, notorious for kidnapping children and taking on the shape of other people to do so. It is in this long trajectory that You won’t be alone places itself, reinterpreting and reimagining many of these “monstrous” aspects into something more human. It’s all part of a dominant sense of cinematic poetry about what it means to be alive with all the pain and pleasures that come with existence. It does this with a subtle twist, luring us into the usually underseen internal and external emotional states of witches as fully developed characters.

RELATED: Noomi Rapace & Goran Stolevski on ‘You Won’t Be Alone’: Witchcraft, Macedonian Farms & Body Switching | Sundance 2022

When audiences experienced this way of subversive storytelling when it premiered at the festival, this significant shift in tone caught some off guard. This is because Nevena, played for the first time in its original form by a Sara Klimoska, has many of the physical characteristics of what we imagine a witch to be. Such details seem to indicate that the film will be about her committing more and more acts of violence. This, remarkably, turns out to be only the beginning.

Completely isolated from all social ties, Nevena is constantly evolving. She quickly finds connections with loving people who care about her and want to see her happy. It is this bittersweet exploration of the value of community that carries her and us through the film. It’s both primal and profound as the journey is told entirely through her eyes as she goes through a process of awakening through multiple iterations of herself. As her character peels off the skin of who she was to take on new forms, she uses gore not to terrify but to connect us to her experience of rebirth. Such body horror scenes invite the audience to react not with fear but with empathy as we grow with her in the process of her changes.

Sara Klimoska in You Won't Be Alone
Image via focus features

What gets even more interesting is how the film tackles the tension between Nevena and her witch mother who was the first to “raise” her. Maria, animated by a multifaceted performance by Anamaria Marinca, often resents the girl she hired. However, this does not amount to a representation or caricature of a note that could easily be demonized as many similar depictions of witches have been. You begin to realize that Maria and Navena have more in common than first impressions establish. They are both strangers, unsure if they will ever be able to be part of a world that we all know would view them with disgust and fear. They both have to struggle to find a way to survive and often pay dearly just to get to the next day. It’s hardly what you imagine when you think of witch stories, because they’re usually reduced to being the villains of the movie, not the ones we’re cast in. Even when Maria becomes Navena’s main antagonist, it’s done with an eye for complexity and nuance that puts the characters’ humanity at the center even as they oppose each other.

Don’t let him be wrong, You won’t be alone is still a horror movie through and through, with plenty of violence and gore. The ending itself is a prime example of this as it is unsettling and heartbreaking. However, the way it fits into the story is nothing short of spectacular, even if it’s deeply painful. It’s about living life in an ugly world and finding a quiet sense of beauty where you can. It’s a movie where witches are just as human as we are, if not more so, and yearn for a meaningful existence where they can live freely with people who care for them just the way they are.

It represents a narrative challenge to the conventions of witch stories that draws most clearly from the director’s work. Terrence Malik. The emphasis on nature and pastoral landscapes with great camera movements resembles some of the finest segments of Malick’s masterful oeuvre. A hidden life in the scenes before the horrors of the world rush in.

Image via focus features

Such a sentiment is reproduced though always taken in its own direction by Stolevski, subverting the common conception of its central mythical figures with a grace that works to build a deeper essence of understanding. It’s about uncovering their motivations and hopes for themselves, which invites an overwhelming sense of empathy for beings who have often been relegated to the rank of targets of disdain. In doing so, the film becomes a profound and poetic experience unlike any other working film in this genre in recent memory. The way he settles into a shared desire to carve out a life of joy despite tragedy is both transcendent and transformative.

It’s evocative and haunting, finding an enduring sense of connection from its folk horror roots. The poignant and patient way in which he achieves this is like re-imagining what we think of when we think of witches. He leaves a lasting impression, ensuring you’ll never think of his subjects the same way again.


‘You Won’t Be Alone’ Review: Noomi Rapace is a Macedonian witch in a pastoral landscape | Sundance 2022

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