Directed by Nico van den Brink
Screenplay by Nico van den Brink & Daan Bakker
Starring Sallie Harmsen, Anneke Blok, Markoesa Hamer, Ad van Kempen, Edon Rizvanolli, Willemijn Kressenhof, Fred Goessens, Phi Nguyen, Albert Secuur, & Johan Fretz.
★★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
The following essay contains significant spoilers;
Folk horror is so great because folklore, which usually plays a huge part in the subgenre, carries with it the traditions of a culture—whether innocuous, positive, or toxic—even when wrapped up in strange, fantastical, and horrifying tales. Aili Nenola writes: “Folklore, like written expression, can be used to either maintain or challenge the status quo prevailing within a community . . . it can be used to express and reinforce acceptance of the dominant norms, concepts and power structures.” One of the oldest, most dominant power structures across many cultures—one that unfortunately endures today—is patriarchy. Nico van den Brink’s Moloch is a Gothic horror story about the endurance of violent patriarchy across generations.
In Moloch, a woman called Betriek (Sallie Harmsen) lives on the edge of a bog in a rural area of the Netherlands with her daughter and her parents. There are things being dug up in the nearby bog; a team of archaeologists are examining “something strange.” One night, Betriek’s family are attacked by a man from the dig team and nobody can explain it. Then Betriek figures out what’s being dug up from the bog, and it tragically alters her, as well as her family, forever.
Moloch‘s horrific critique of using folklore to reinforce patriarchy is a chilling story told largely through Gothic and (Freudian) Uncanny imagery. In the beginning of the film there’s a scene depicting Betriek as a girl hiding in a pantry and a bloody struggle upstairs, and this image is revisited when Betriek has to put her own daughter in the pantry to prevent a murder upstairs. Gothic Uncanny repetition is a common theme in the film. The most unsettling repetition is the numerous preserved women dug out of the mud in the bog, all from different eras, all of the same family, and all of them with their throats cut. Feike herself becomes a vengeful ghost created out of the horrors of patriarchal control. When she eventually appears in that ghostly form, only briefly, it’s a powerful Uncanny image in the context of the film’s finale.
One of the Gothic Uncanny images that plays so well into Moloch‘s plot is a scene during which we see the “the legend of Feike” being told by one of the archaeologists in voiceover narration as Betriek’s daughter and the children at school perform a play about Feike. It’s a brilliant and disturbing parallel that works well enough on the surface. Beneath that, it’s an excellent moment portraying how the oral traditions of folklore can be used to carry on awful traditions, as the kids obliviously reenact a sanitised version of Feik’s horrific story and simultaneously the archaeologist recounts the brutal truth of the tale.
What comes across by the end of Moloch is that the old order continues to dominate the contemporary world, in spite of our struggle against it. The film’s small town uses the Moloch mythology and Feike folklore “to reproduce and reinforce the status quo of the community by repeating the myths of the community.” As Nenola notes, folklore bent to this purpose is “used to socialize members of the community and keep them in their place,” which is at the core of the terrifying “legend of Feike.”
Although Feike is technically living on through the generations, she is a spectral presence created out of the devastating effects patriarchy has upon women. And even though the town continues their nasty tradition every generation out of fear of what Moloch might do to them, they still perpetuate patriarchal control and violence. There’s nothing hopeful left at the end of Moloch, certainly not for change, only despair at the continuing brutality against women.
Even Roel, Betriek’s father, plays a part in the older generation perpetuating the village’s patriarchal curse, despite not entirely playing an active part in it. He knows everything that’s been buried there: “It‘s all happening again. She‘s back.” His friend similarly remarks: “I feel we‘ve gone back in time.” It’s also significant that there’s a somewhat lingering shot on Roel’s military and/or police medals on his wall because it speaks to a much larger systemic issue with patriarchy: not only is this a family and a village issue, it involves institutions ingrained with violent patriarchy keeping the generational murder of women a secret. Diabolical, no?
On top of Roel’s institutional role amongst the village, his contribution to the continuing violence of patriarchy becomes a form of “unprocessed trauma,” not just for the village but for his family, who are directly part of the gruesome generational ritual. In this sense, the ritual sacrifice tied to the entity Moloch is Betriek’s family’s generational trauma, replicating itself over and over across generations. One of the first shots of the film is a framed photograph of Betriek, her child, and her mother together, next to several generations of the same photo down through the family line, and one of the frames comes off the wall, hanging, ready to drop; a simple yet powerful image about the traumatised generations that came before Betriek. The most haunting part of the film is the very end sequence when we see Feike transfer into the body of Betriek. It’s so desperately haunting because we know this is the fate that awaits Betriek’s daughter someday, she’s incapable of escaping her family’s generational trauma.
The term ‘slow burn’ gets tossed around a lot in film writing, though often it just means a film is paced slowly. Moloch‘s burn is certainly slow, only in the way it gradually builds up its terrors. We sit alongside Betriek as she wears away the layers of history hiding the truth in her family’s little village, and the more she discovers, the more we finds ourselves disturbed with her. The film feels like an old piece of folklore gradually being told over the campfire, and the final harrowing act is the last line of a story that sends everybody back to their tents scared for the night.
Moloch is also a film that resonates strongly with the concerns of 2022, as nationalism runs wild all around the globe and the populists pushing it love reverting back to stories about the old days, when things were supposedly ‘great.’ The film’s little village has resigned itself to an all-encompassing belief in folklore and mythology, not reality, and it rules their lives with deadly force, not unlike the nationalists who reach into the past for folklore and myth they can bend to their purposes. Moloch is really a story about communities that can’t face their actual histories, nor how the contemporary world judges those histories, so they retreat into harmful, mythic stories to prop up ideologies that often violently oppress others.
Nenola, Aili. “Gender, Culture and Folklore.” Gender and Folklore: Perspectives on Finnish and Karelian Culture. Eds. Satu Apo, Aili Nenola, and Laura Stark-Arola. Studia Fennica, 1998; pp. 21-39.