Elizabeth E. Schuch's spooky, atmospheric horror gem prefers to keep its tale of demonic birth and possession filled with atmospheric dread rather than outright shocks.
Secluded from the world, convents offer filmmakers an isolated setting charged with religious significance. This combination especially lends itself especially to tales that create a juxtaposition with the holy and the demonic. While the latest entry in The Conjuring series, The Nun, goes for outright scares, Elizabeth E. Schuch’s directorial debut, The Book of Birdie, opts for a moodier and more atmospheric take on the genre.
The Book of Birdie starts with the titular Birdie (Ilirida Memedovski) being dropped off at an isolated convent by her grandmother, who hopes the sisters will be able to bring peace to her troubled granddaughter. Birdie spends her time getting used to life at the convent in isolation, barely interacting with the nuns at all. One night, early on in her stay, Birdie has a vision of a dead nun at the bottom of a spiral staircase, and awakes to find herself covered in blood, with an embryonic creature in her sheets. While she nurtures the creature, she also begins a romantic relationship with Julia, the groundkeeper’s daughter (Kitty Fenn); decorates the chapel statues of the holy family; takes singing lessons; and is haunted by the vision of two dead nuns, one who hangs in a tree and is friendly, and the other dead at the bottom of the stairs who tells her she is tainted by the devil. Throughout, Birdie is obsessed with the blood that comes from her body, using it as decoration, plaything, and eventually to drink. As the film progresses, Birdie becomes more wrapped up in her internal world, unsure if she is blessed by God or cursed by Satan.
After watching the film, it’s no surprise to learn that Schuh’s previous work is in theatrical design and special effects. The movie itself is sumptuous, with gorgeous shots throughout. One particularly phenomenal scene has Birdie laid out on her bed with cards depicting the saints surrounding her head like a halo. Throughout these enrapturing visuals, Schuch plays with extreme contrast between blindingly white outdoor scenes, and the shadowy interiors, while the blood that saturates the film provides a shock of color to both.
While the visuals are fully fleshed out, the plot itself is not as strong. The film is less interested in telling a story than creating a mood. As such, there is no strong conflict in the film, other than the vague notion that Birdie is unsure whether she is divine or blasphemous. The film leaves many story lines unfinished, simply moving between various situations that Birdie reacts to. What The Book of Birdie does do extremely well, however, is show the internal life of a young woman. There are no men on screen, and as such, Birdie’s conflicts are only between herself and other women. This is definitely refreshing, and while the conflict is not strong, one does wonder if Birdie will choose a life as a nun or go off to the secular world with her new girlfriend Julia.
If you are looking for scary movie, then The Book of Birdie is not for you. While the film is genuinely creepy, incorporating elements of body horror à la Davids Lynch and Cronenberg, Schuh prefers atmospheric tension more than overt scares. There are many false starts that make you think it will turn straight horror: the embryonic creature she nurtures, or the dead nuns, both seem like they will eventually lead to straight up scares. However, they merely add to the creepy atmosphere, preferring to unsettle rather than startle.
While the lack of a detailed horror plot may be a turn off for many people, for those who enjoy a good mood piece, The Book of Birdie offers a great break from the jump scares that populate most thrillers. Moreover, the picture of a young woman’s internal life is a welcome point of view. These kinds of unique viewpoints are so valuable in the genre right now, and Schuch’s debut is the arrival of a crucial new voice in atmospheric horror.
The Book of Birdie is currently available on VOD.