There’s something truly satisfying about a good old-fashioned, Henry James-ian ghost story — how it delivers not only a joyously good scare, but also its own, or perhaps a lesser-known, kind of mythology, which it does through the story of the ghost unpacked by the protagonists looking to save their own souls. Director Nico Van den Brink’s Moloch offers up such a traditionally chilling ghost story, one that will have even seasoned horror fans gripped until the last frame. Unpretentious in its endeavors as it unfurls to inspire bone-chilling horror, Moloch is a visual and narrative success for the way in which — even as it adds its own unique mythos — it understands and preserves what has always been an effective bedrock of the ghost story’s horror: motherhood.
“There is an untapped wealth of stories just waiting to be shared with an international audience,” said Van den Brink of Moloch’s plot, which is rooted in a Dutch legend. The film follows Betriek (Sallie Harmsen), who lives in an ancestral home in a boggy town in the Dutch countryside with her mother, father, and her six-year-old daughter Hanna (Noor van der Velden). The family have been plagued by a sort of curse wherein every generation sees the mother murdered and the father become insane. The curse comes for Betriek, her mother, and Hanna with the discovery of a perfectly-preserved, generations-old corpse in the bog, and the arrival of archaeologist Jonas (Alexandre Willaume), who persists in digging up the bog and the old curse plaguing the town.
The film explores some cultish tendencies à la Hereditary, through the town’s celebration of a historical woman named Feike, who brought prosperity to the land centuries ago when she possessed the king’s wife, Helen, and used her influence to make peasants’ lives easier. But Moloch also ups the ante on the very human danger that cults pose by injecting a chilling, supernatural danger to the story. The film engagingly explores the complex curse placed upon Feike by a heathen god to haunt generations of her and Helen’s lineage, demanding human sacrifices.
The horrors in Moloch, in other words, are both human and ghostly. The film compellingly commingles and utilizes these traditional horror motifs to explore how communal legends haunt us through myths passed down from generation to generation, and also haunt quite literally through ancestral ghosts. The winds whirling through the boglands surrounding Betriek carry whispers that could be from the women who have been taken as sacrifices. Or they could be inconspicuous — as the film initially offers — being interpreted by the men around Betriek as voices because of some psychological upheaval within them. But then, taking things a step further (and also backward toward the ghostly hypothesizations of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw), Moloch also lends credence to and respects its Dutch mythology through its genuinely terrifying apparitions, and the dire danger it places the women within the town. This works to keep audiences from wondering about the possibility of a legend’s ability to haunt, and believing wholeheartedly instead in Feike’s curse’s power.
All the heft of Moloch’s ghost story is articulated and made urgent through that beloved mainstay of all our favorite horrors, motherhood, asking Betriek what she will do to keep Hanna safe, to keep her own mother safe. The film takes such deliciously complex turns as it mines the horrors of motherhood, of intergenerational trauma, and looks for hope within death — in other words, it raises such ripe existential questions in the way that all the best horror films do, through lush imagery and oral storytelling, through flowing blood and boney scepters.
The performances all around in this film are spellbinding, the narrative is gripping, and the cinematography stunningly shrouds the traditionally sunny image we hold of the Netherlands in an oppressive, foggy darkness, ultimately making Moloch a ghastly fun time, certainly succeeding in its endeavor to open up new mythological worlds for horror. Watch for its ghosts, and rewatch to unfurl the compelling legends coiled within this home run of a ghost story.