You Won’t Be Alone Is Inspired and Mesmerizing Folk Horror

The debut folk horror film You Won’t Be Alone, set in 19th-century Macedonia, is an amazingly mature piece of work that weighs the overwhelming, bloody brutality of the world against its strange enchantments.

Still from You Won't Be Alone. (Focus Features)

Currently available to view on Apple TV+ after a brief theatrical release, You Won’t Be Alone is an astonishingly accomplished feature film debut by Australian-Macedonian writer-director Goran Stolevski. Seeking to capture aspects of what’s left of a fast-disappearing traditional rural culture that represents his own ancestral heritage, Stolevski creates a unique and mesmerizing folk horror film about the life experiences of a witch who kills and occupies the bodies and existences of various peasants in remote nineteenth-century Macedonia.

The film, though shot realistically and beautifully in the mountainous countryside, has a dreamlike quality all its own. It begins with a fairy-tale story structure, as a peasant woman discovers a terrifying creature from local folklore called a “wolf-eateress” (Anamaria Marinca) sitting beside her baby’s cradle, contemplating killing it to drink its blood. It’s a shocking, raw figure in the form of a naked middle-aged woman, but with crusty red skin all over, black lips, and only a few wisps of hair clinging to its skull. The wolf-eateress makes a bargain with the desperate mother to forego killing the baby if she can come to claim her as a surrogate daughter when the child is sixteen years old. She seals the bargain by wounding the child’s throat, stilling her voice.

In a continuing approximation of the Sleeping Beauty narrative, the mother seeks to avoid fulfilling the ghastly bargain by hiding her child and raising her in secret. The girl, named Nevena, grows up in grim isolation in a sacred cave marked by crosses, open at the ceiling to let in light and air. She sees only her mother, who intermittently brings her food and cares for her. Mute and stunted by sensory and social deprivation, she develops a poetic interior language of her own devising that serves as the voice-over of the film. In it, she refers to her mother as “whisper-mama.”

When the wolf-eateress discovers teenage Nevena (played by Sara Klimoska), she kills Nevena’s mother and takes over her body. Nevena is forced to go out into the world led by an abductor who looks nightmarishly like her mother but has an expression of chilling, alien hostility. Nevena differentiates this new guide through the world by calling her “witch-mama,” a being that lives by a code of vengeful cruelty, especially against humans who wronged her in her mortal life. Killing gratuitously, drinking the blood of beasts and humans like a vampire, she harshly rebukes the girl for seeking “playthings” among the softer animals, instead of always “blood, which gives us strength.”

Though Nevena longs for the return of “whisper-mama,” she never again wants to go back to “the walls.” As rough as the world will turn out to be — and Nevena’s first experience of full sunlight and sensory overload outside the cave is conveyed in the film with almost painful intensity — nothing is worse than the terrible solitude and confinement imposed by her well-meaning mother.

Ultimately, “witch-mama” abandons the girl, who shrinks from a life of cruelty, lamenting that she wasted her one chance to create another witch such as herself — a gruesome ritual that involves clawing open Nevena’s chest and spitting blood into the wounds. Nevena goes on to a varied existence as a shape-shifter herself, experimenting with how to live among humans by taking on the body of Bosilka, a badly abused married woman and new mother (Noomi Rapace), then a handsome young man (Carloto Cotta), and even a big friendly dog. She finally finds a lasting place in the revived body of a little girl who died in an accidental fall off a cliff.

As this girl (played when younger by Anastasija Karanovich and when older by Alice Englert), Nevena experiences growing up in such an affectionate, good-natured family that it’s bewildering for her to discover at last that life needn’t always be merely a brutal test of endurance. That is, if only the wolf-eateress, envious of her success in living among humans, would stop stalking her and those she loves.

The film is deliberately slow, intense, and speculative about the strangeness of the world, of nature, of animals, of people, of “society,” of every individual. “Is anything not strange?” ponders Nevena in her second phase of experimental living, trying to fathom the humanity in these remote mountain settlements, where they lead harsh laboring lives and maintain rigidly separate codes of behavior for men and women. As the abused Bosilka, Nevena works out that with men in this culture, she must be like water, trickling around their blocky forms, supplying their needs. But with women, “I am mirror,” doing as they do, clustering closely together, making eager laughing and talking noises.

The overwhelming, bloody brutality of the world is repeatedly weighed against its strange enchantments with Nevena’s internal phrase that’s enough to pull her onward through many phases of life: “And yet . . . and yet . . .”

It’s an amazingly mature piece of work. If you’re at all drawn to folk horror, or just hoping to discover fresh and heartening talent in filmmaking, you should see it.