Horror needs more great female villains…
…For every Carrie or Mary Lou, there are five Freddy Kruegers or Michael Myers. And it’s not that they aren’t out there. Quite a few good horror films offer memorable female villains. They just too often get denied the chance for a sequel. Inside writers/directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s new folkloric horror flick, Kandisha, may be heavily flawed, but introduces a terrifying villain that deserves more time under the bloody sun.
In Kandisha, three women, Amelie (Mathilde Lamusse), Bintou (Suzy Bemba) and Morjana (Samarcande Saadi), are enjoying their summer break, spending their nights in abandoned buildings, tagging them with kickass graffiti. But when the girls stumble upon the name Kandisha behind rotting wallpaper, they learn of an urban legend about a demonic woman who destroys men (hell yeah). After Amelie is assaulted by her ex, she summons Kandisha, unwillingly unleashing her on all of the men in the three friend’s lives.
Following an eerie, slow zoom into the city accompanied by a haunting score from Raf Keunen, Kandisha starts off well enough, introducing us to our main trio and a few other friends as they chat in a diner, spending most of the time tossing around jokes about each other’s race, which no one seems to mind much. The filmmakers take their time injecting us into the lives of these characters, with nothing even remotely spooky occurring until about the twenty-minute mark. It would be a stretch to say that there’s much depth to our cast of characters, but Lamusse, Bemba and Saadi make up for what’s lacking in the script with endearing performances that feel natural and more importantly real. None of the three are any kind of trope. They’re all just women, living their lives in a world where the cruelty of men is all too real.
Oddly enough, it’s that companionship of these three women and the melting pot of culture which they represent that both elevates the thematic punch of Kandisha, yet hurts it as well. Between the three women and the demonic spirit which haunts them, Kandisha reflects a harsh truth that we know all too well: women in every culture experience abuse from men, and that abuse is generational. Never-ending. Timeless. We live in a period where male toxicity is finally being called out for the ugly monster it is, and Kandisha is an angry metaphor for the vengeance of generations, hellbent on making men pay.
The downside is, Kandisha sacrifices genuine suspense for the theme.
The film suffers from a “too many heroes” syndrome, with our trio of women spending nearly every moment past the first act together, which only exacerbates the fact that there is little actual danger posed to themselves. Kandisha is only after the men in their lives, and there is tragic heartbreak that results from that, but the impact hits softer than it should, because we hardly get to know any of the men whom Kandisha is stalking. Amelie, Bintou and Morjana, while all likeable characters by themselves, could have easily been combined into a single person with a greater connection to Kandisha’s victims, but as is, the weight of the deaths which the film is attempting to impose aren’t as heavy as they need to be for an effective, emotional impact.
Even without seemingly any real threat to our main characters, Kandisha struggles to establish a genuine sense of terror. For the most part, Kandisha wanders in and out of frame, appearing as a cloaked visage for a majority of the film. The filmmakers use shadows to their advantage, plunging much of the film in gloomy darkness, but you could argue that, like an enraged tigress on the hunt, Kandisha runs a little too fast. Moments here and there do wonders in slithering under the skin—such as a summoning circle gone wrong that contains all sorts of shocking imagery from goat-legged women to bleeding eyes and so on—but when it comes to death scenes, the men are killed quickly and violently, with little buildup to get the heartrate going. Which is surprising, considering how downright nerve-shattering some of Bustillo and Maury’s previous work is.
Inside gave me nightmares for weeks.
Where the filmmaker’s familiar talents come in is in just how gruesome some of the deaths are. This is not a pretty film. Kandisha is an expression of the rage of countless women scorned, and that comes through during the grotesque violence present all throughout. The men in this film are straight up slaughtered. Kandisha rips, claws and smashes her way through her victims, leaving a pulpy mess of gore behind, and yes, the practical effects are bloody glorious. The film may lack suspense, but Kandisha is immensely satisfying when it comes to the bloodshed. She is demonic goat-woman. Hear her roar.
As is the case with the best horror villains, Kandisha is the real star here. The film is a bit tropey when it comes to the approach to the character—deals with the devil, Candyman-style methods of calling her, summoning circles where characters absolutely must not break the circle—but Kandisha herself is a stunning terror. Part gorgeous woman, part demon, she is a powerful sight to behold, and only grows more terrifying as the film goes on, presented with some astounding effects work that calls back to more classical, gothic creatures of old. She is a villain that I’d sell my soul to see more of, because horror needs more villains like her. For all of its flaws, Kandisha more than makes up for the price of admission with its vicious monster.
At around eighty minutes, Kandisha is like rage itself: sudden, violent and unbelievably brutal. There’s an attempt at emotional depth that didn’t quite work for me and a noticeable lack of teeth-chattering anticipation, but Kandisha is an unforgettable villain and could quite possibly go down as one of the more inspired (and horrific) creations of the year. Here’s to hoping we see more of her, and that men stop giving her reasons to show up.
Kandisha arrives on Shudder July 22nd.
By Matt Konopka