Some sadistic bastard has tagged German director-writer Fritz Böhm’s debut feature with the dread ‘elevated horror’ label on his IMDb bio, but this is actually a well-constructed, small-scale blend of urban legend, true crime, fairy tale and werewolf story. Co-scripted by Florian Eder and photographed by horror regular Toby Oliver (Get Out, Happy Death Day, Wolf Creek 2), it touches base with a few disparate genre precedents (including Room, Let the Right One In and Ginger Snaps) but has its own take on cryptid mythology and the recently-prolifirating captivity narrative.
A long prologue establishes that a plausible weirdo who insist on being called Daddy (Brad Dourif, cast cleverly to type) is keeping a little girl, Anna (Arlo Mertz, then Alviva Winick), in one room in a shack in the woods, insisting that all the other children in the world have been eaten by ‘wildlings’, so that she’ll be too afraid to venture out. Whenever anyone visits, Daddy electrifies Anna’s door handle – which he tells her is part of his anti-wildling strategy – but, of course, as the girl grows up – with lead actress Bel Powley taking the role – she starts to question what she’s being told. When she reaches menarche, Daddy begins a program of daily injections he says will keep her disease under control – but which might actually be to keep her dependent and retard her physical maturity.
Eventually, a crisis ends Daddy’s sinister idyll … and Anna is taken out of the only space she’s known, off the drugs, and into the care of cop Ellen Cooper (Liv Tyler). A withdrawn, difficult girl with very limited knowledge of the outside world, Anna is still sharply attuned to emotional cues and canny enough to seek out a library and read up on a lot of subjects, setting her own program of studies to find out what truth (if any) there is to the stories she’s always been told. Of course, other people – including Ellen’s decent teenage brother Ray (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) and a whiskery vagrant known as the Wolf Man (James LeGros) – get involved, as Anna goes through all sorts of physical changes and the true nature of the wildlings emerges.
Ellen happily introduces her charge to tampons and shaving her legs, but Anna has to cope on her own with a fresh set of teeth and urges that put her on a par with the heroines of recent girl ghoul movies like Teeth, Siren and Raw. Powley – a British ingenue whose CV is mostly stuff like MI High, Benidorm and A Royal Night Out – seizes this role with teeth and claws and carries the film through its mood shifts from dark suspense through teen realism to brutal fairytale. There turns out to be quite an elaborate backstory, and even Dourif’s seeming bogeyman springs some surprises, but as is usually the case in these tales, everything leads back to the woods.