I love walking in the woods during the day. I hate being near them at night. Even with a flashlight, looking into the darkness of a forest always feels like tempting fate. Something’s going to pop out, right? Or even worse: Your light might just come to rest on an immobile pair of glimmering red eyes atop a shadowy figure that’s not quite visible. The noises, too. Bugs and animals, sure, but even the innocuous sound of wind rustling leaves and branches. I’m an Eagle Scout, but the woods at night still frighten me.
They frighten Robin (Rachel Nichols), too, who has returned home to the Black Woods of Germany, at a place of great power, a place where empires have met defeat. Robin is brought back after the death of her grandfather, who left her property. She’s accompanied by Leo (Yohance Myles), her partner, who thinks Robin’s bad vibes about her hometown are somewhat silly. It’s a beautiful place filled with history. They can enjoy themselves here.
Leo is wrong, of course. Soon the two of them and a group of strangers find themselves on the run from a group of dark priestesses worshipping the creature Cernunnos, who has great plans for Robin.
Miles Doleac’s Demigod is at its best when it embraces the claustrophobic nature of darkened woods but loses itself a little when the story is forced to deliver exposition between characters in the light of day. In a way, it captures the dissonant nature of the woods as a setting: there’s nothing too spooky about a bunch of people tied to trees on a late autumn afternoon. Turn off the lights, though, and something inherent changes in the scene. Cinematographer Nathan Tape’s eye for lighting the dark reaches of the Black Forest is absolutely stellar.
That’s not to peg the successes of Demigod solely on the conceptual choice of making a forest-set folk tale. The team also develops a tone that feels very much akin to 2018’s Mandy, a film whose moody, desolate first half was far more successful than its rage-splatter second. Demigod is more the former than the latter. Even after the blood starts spilling, the film captures a specific mood, aided by a solid electronic soundtrack and interesting visuals. There’s a pleasant surreality here that becomes its own vibe.
Not everything in Demigod, however, contributes positively to the whole. The story is somewhat convoluted even as it builds to an empowering (and admirably fatalistic) climax. Long scenes of daytime dialogue interrupt the aesthetic pleasures that Doleac and crew capture during the night terrors. It’s not a long film, but it drags in parts.
Perhaps I was simply taken by the night shoots, the soundtrack and the inherently disturbing setting. In any case, Demigod‘s flaws feel far more minor than how well it succeeds — as an indie folk-horror tale which recognizes the scariest possibility is that the world outside our window is still far beyond our understanding.