In its opening moments, the new horror film You Won't Be Alone sets the stage for what is coming. A cat in a field walks offscreen, we hear as it gets brutally killed, but then it walks back onscreen as if nothing happened. The cat is not what it seems. It soon finds a crying baby. The baby's fate seems sealed when her mother makes a deal, take her when she is 16 but give me the years until then. We quickly learn that the cat is Old Maid Maria and she has come to drink the blood of a newborn.
You Won't Be Alone is folk horror through and through. It is an updated fairy tale with feminist overtones. It is often beautiful, looking like a Terrence Malick film, and disturbing, keeping violence off-screen but relishing in gory transformations. It incorporates poetic voiceover to fill in some gaps and let us in on the inner logic of the witchcraft on display.
The film follows the mother from the opening scene who raises her daughter Nevena (played by a variety of actors and actresses and even an animal or two). The fear that Old Maid Maria will take her daughter forces the mother to raise Nevena in a dark cave. That is until she turns 16 and the witch comes for her. Motherhood is central to the themes here and Nevena soon finds herself being mentored by Old Maid Maria. However, she rejects the violent nature of her new mother. She refuses to drink blood. The old witch soon sends her off on her own. Much of the rest of the film follows Nevena as she shapeshifts into various people to better understand humans and the world.
While Maria holds humanity in contempt, and for a fair reason, Nevena experiences the emotions of humans with fresh eyes. The tension between these viewpoints keeps the film tense and unpredictable. We know these two will eventually face off.
First-time director Goran Stolevski trusts his audience enough to not overly explain the world of the film. We see the shapeshifting ritual many times and do not need to be told how it all works. The story leaves some elements opaque but never to the point of losing the audience's interest. Thematically, the film muses on humanity in a way similar to Under the Skin or The Man Who Fell to Earth. While I loved the details of the witchcraft at play and the consistency of performances among all the actors playing Nevana, I was less impressed by the film's observations on humans. The way Nevena experiences sex from both the male and female perspective is fascinating. The way she learns about human empathy is less so. The generational rejection of the hatred that came before is also fascinating. Nevena has a clean slate to experience the world, something Maria never had. You Won't Be Alone features some singular imagery, powerful performances and interesting themes. Stolevski balances the lofty, meditative tone with the more graphic horror elements well. This could be the arrival of a new voice in the horror genre. For now, it is an intriguing new entry in folk horror.