With Michael Steiner’s Sennentuntschi, Swiss cinema finally gets its go at the classic horror film, and as Frightfest draws to a close, it appears some of the very best has been saved for last. If one feral woman wasn’t enough for this year’s fest with Lucky McKee’s visceral The Woman, we get more of the same here, with a spooky tale of sexual enslavement, unexplained death, and a grisly tale of revenge with a mystical, fairytale-like quality.
The film’s title refers to the Alpine legend of a group of three herders who, without any female interaction whatsoever, created one out of various household objects in their sheer desperation. The Devil, pitying their feeble efforts, turns the crude creation into a beautiful, real woman, Sennentuntschi, yet after the three men have enjoyed her carnal delights, she turns the tables and murders them, before skinning and stuffing them. In the mid-1970s, the legend rears its head again (played by the gorgeous Roxanne Masquida) once three farmers are overcome with the ennui of their work, interspersed with the quest of a police officer, Reusch (Nicholas Ofczarek) to solve the unexplained suicide of a local priest.
Shot with a light palette and an old-fashioned, suspenseful soundtrack in a mystical locale, this evokes the airy, brooding atmosphere of something like The Wicker Man, as a cop way in over his head tries to make head or tail of Sennentuntschi’s appearance and the priest’s suicide. Director Steiner is certainly in no hurry to tell his story, but it moves along with a quiet, creepy power, and is hardly ever classified as boring. What’s more, presence also accounts for a lot here; Ofczarek is a stellar, likeable lead, while the stand-out is Mesquida as the titular beauty, luminous and mysterious.
One emotional beat – of Reusch’s wife’s difficulties to conceive a baby – does feel rather rushed through and is ultimately little more than hollow “character development”, while its follow up later on is equally unsatisfying. Still, it doesn’t lose its footing for long, and becomes somewhat more interesting in the second half, once we are fully aware of the legend’s grip and realise where it’s going, while the characters remain powerless against what’s going to happen. It’s fun to watch the chaos that ensues, and the story is well-acted and confidently directed such that it never betrays the straight-faced tone it lays from the outset.
Steiner’s direction is particularly praise-worthy; he captures the uniquely discomforting Swiss scenery extremely well, helping to cement the mood and give the film a more disassociated, cut-off feel which evokes that the tone of many a dark fairy tale from centuries old. While the montage-based reveal at the end explaining everything could have de-evolved into an exposition-fest, Steiner’s hand is again steady, confident to allow images to tell the tale without having to get too wordy, resulting in a satisfying climax which ties everything together, even if we’re not entirely sure of the complete truth and the viewer is left to ponder plenty.
This gripping Swiss horror plays out like a grisly fairytale, with solid performances and impressive, visually sumptuous direction.