Ancient corpses uncovered in a bog haunt the residents near it in “Moloch,” a gloomy, suspenseful thriller from the Netherlands.
Director and co-writer Nico van den Brink makes his feature filmmaking debut an exercise in menacing a mother and her child in a house on the edge of a bog, where archeologists are exhuming preserved but gruesome corpses from many centuries ago.
How might that lead to present-day assaults on the nearby house of an old woman, her daughter and granddaughter?
Consider the title, used in earlier films and on a current TV series. There’s a folk legend celebrated in this town that revolves around an Old Testament entity and practice, something the locals still celebrate and commemorate for some reason.
Where is “Moloch” mentioned? Why, in that scariest and most problematic Book of Leviticus, of course.
Young widow Betriek (Sallie Harmsen) is OK with the researchers now digging holes in the peat. She’ll even help translate — and sugar coat — any concerns the townsfolk have with this team, led by a non-Dutch speaker, Jonas (Alexandre Willaume).
But a couple of things give the viewer pause.
The film’s opening scene is of Betriek as a child — trapped in the basement of the house at the bog’s edge she now lives in — as her grandmother is brutally murdered upstairs. And the blood dripping through the floorboards and even oozing from the walls suggests that was something more supernatural than just a “simple” brutal murder.
And then there was the mysterious “bag man,” a homeless fellow who took to digging his own hole in the bog not far from the archeologists, and died in it.
When Betriek sees something in the shadows outside her mother’s house, her divorced dad (Fred Goessens) is alarmed, even if her mother (Anneke Blok) isn’t. When that “something” turns human and makes his way inside, one of the research team waving a knife and screaming “I’m sorry, I’m SORRY, they’re MAKING me do it,” the jig is up.
The buried might not want to be dug up.
Betriek’s reaction is a mixture of shock and deja vu, and considering the peril — surviving a knife attack, knowing her own past trauma — the most unbelievable thing in the movie might be that she’s not grabbing her child and fleeing, and insisting her mother join them.
There’s a flirtation between Jonas and this laywoman who knows more about this mystery than she’s letting on. Betriek lashes out over not being taken seriously, and lashes out in ways that suggest she’s been triggered by the current trauma reminding her of the past.
As the scientists consider the state of the corpses they dig up and one reads of the traditions they think these corpses might connect to, children act out the folk legend on stage, a clever bit of illustration that advances the plot and foreshadows the finale.
The attacks themselves are the film’s big jolts, more hair-raising than the threat of them, although the apparitions Betriek is seeing would give anybody the willies and send stronger women or men into therapy.
“Moloch” has a fairly conventional plot with story beats and a resolution that will have the ring of familiarity to anybody who’s ever seen a horror film based on a folk tale. But van den Brink and his crew bathe this beast in a gorgeous murky gloom that sets the tone.
And in Harmsen, he’s cast someone well-suited to let us see Betriek’s lighter moments are but occasional respites from a brooding memory of a horrific past, and a dazzling beauty who beguiles and puzzles the scientist ostensibly there to study corpses, but wondering how this stunning blonde connects to them.
How striking is Harmsen? She was gorgeous enough to be a replicant in “Blade Runner 2049.” There’s nothing for it but to admit you can’t take your eyes off her.
Her casting is a major draw in a thriller that would still be interesting, in a genre-appreciating way, without her, lifting this spooky-spirits-of-the-bog tale out of the gloom and into something harrowing enough to feel real.
Rating: unrated, graphic violence
Cast: Sallie Harmsen, Anneke Blok, Fred Goessens, Noor van der Velden and Alexandre Willaume.
Credits: Directed by Nico van den Brink, scripted by Daan Baker an Nico van den Brink. An XYZ Films release on Shudder.
Running time: 1:39