THE DEVIL’S BATH (Tribeca 2024) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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Like their breakout 2014 feature debut Goodnight Mommy, aunt-and-nephew filmmaking team Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s The Devil’s Bath opens on the shot of a young boy standing near an Austrian forest. Like their 2019 English-language effort The Lodge, the figure of the mother looms large here also, and like their short The Sinful Women of Hollfall in the 2018 horror anthology The Field Guide to Evil, this film too is marked by its period setting.

And yet, regardless of how familiar you might be with Franz and Fiala’s filmography, nothing can quite prepare you for The Devil’s Bath. Certainly on paper, their past work all points in this direction. But to say that this is the film it feels they were destined to make is an understatement.

As impressive as their past work has been, nothing they have done previously comes even close to the courage, emotional intelligence, stylistic ambition and ferocious intent driving this, their third feature.

The film is set deep in the Styrian woods in the mid-18th century and begins with the wedding of young village woman Agnes (Anja Paschg). Even before the day is over she feels disoriented, which only escalates with the harsh reality of married life. She soon finds herself at the mercy of a cruel mother-in-law (Maria Hofstätter) and distant, disinterested husband Wolf (David Scheid).

WIth her mental health spiralling, she is diagnosed with “melancholy” and treated with ineffective folk remedies that do not stave off her seemingly inevitable collapse. But when everything does fall apart, Agnes learns the hard way that her options are limited, pushing her to make a shocking yet seemingly inevitable decision.

Inspired by Kathy Stuart’s recent book Suicide by Proxy in Early Modern Germany: Crime, Sin and Salvation, Franz and Fiala’s film in many ways deviates substantially from their earlier work in that it is tethered much more tightly to actual historical events, and notably shifts well beyond from the familiar codes and conventions of their beloved horror genre.

But make no mistake: the world of The Devil’s Bath is their most nightmarish yet. If there is a better and more authentic exploration of depression on film, I cannot think of it. Displaying the unspoken sense of disgust and anger that sufferers are so often met with, this is an unapologetically brutal film, but at its essence an extraordinarily truthful one.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).