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aka The Lullaby

D: Darrell Roodt / 86m

Cast: Reine Swart, Thandi Puren, Brandon Auret, Deànré Reiners, Dorothy Ann Gould

Touted as the first horror movie from South Africa, Siembamba is as much a psychological thriller as it is a straight-out chiller, and it juggles both interpretations with a degree of confidence as it tells the story of nineteen year old Chloe van Heerden (Swart), returning to her home in Eden Rock with a newborn baby, Liam, in tow. Chloe ran away after a row with her mother, Ruby (Puren). What happened to her, and why she fell pregnant, Chloe won’t – or can’t – explain, but she is resigned to being back home and being a young mother. Soon, strange things begin happening around the house, and Chloe becomes convinced that there is a strange presence there, and it wants Liam. She sees and hears things, including a nightmarish vision of a woman, a midwife, wearing a black bonnet. Ruby shares her own concerns with Dr Reed (Auret), who wonders if Chloe is merely suffering from post-partum depression. But Chloe’s visions become more and more violent, and she even begins to doubt her mother’s role in everything, her paranoia and distrust building with each new frightening experience. And then, on Dr Reed’s advice, Chloe is left by herself for the evening…

If you’re a country that’s never made an out and out horror movie before, but you don’t want to make just another slasher movie, then what better way to start off than by adapting a poem by South African poet Louis Leipoldt that, with some slight re-wording, goes as follows: Siembamba, mother’s little baby / Siembamba, mother’s little child / Wring his neck, throw him in the ditch / Step on his head, make sure he is dead. And the movie sets out its stall right from the beginning with a baby having its neck broken within the first five minutes; as a statement of intent it’s up there with Georgie Denbrough getting his arm torn off by Pennywise in It (2017). This is strong, mature stuff (albeit shot in a distressed, found-footage style that grates more than it should), and as the movie delves into Chloe’s tortured present and past, Tarryn-Tanille Prinsloo’s script finds ever more horrible and unsettling ways to put little Liam in harm’s way, including a nerve-wracking moment where Chloe is trimming his fingernails – or is she cutting off his fingers? The movie is at its best in moments like these, when the viewer can’t be sure if it’s all in Chloe’s mind or if there really is a supernatural presence in the house.

But while the movie goes to great pains to keep the audience guessing, it does so with little regard to pacing or the overall tone. Like many horror movies it makes the mistake of having strange events happen as soon as Chloe gets home after giving birth. There’s no appreciable build-up, and the adversarial nature of Chloe and Ruby’s relationship is exacerbated by the script’s refusal to have them actually talk to each other unless it involves recriminations on each side. Likewise, when Chloe sees Dr Reed, a scene that could have provided audiences with a deeper understanding of the folklore the movie is based on, instead remains a missed opportunity. But these issues are to be expected in a modern horror movie, whereas the pacing is seriously off, with scenes lacking energy and purpose at times, making the movie as a whole a somewhat frustrating experience. Roodt is an experienced director, and in many ways a good choice for South Africa’s first horror movie, but the fractured imagery and off-kilter visual style he’s adopted along with editor Leon Gerber hampers the movie instead of helping it. There are a couple of good scares to be had along the way, but much of what frights there are involve the midwife, a character that wouldn’t feel out of place in the Insidious franchise. As things progress, the movie relies on her presence more and more, though without her, the psychological aspects could have been used to make things even more unsettling. For a first attempt, Siembamba overcomes some hurdles with ease, but it also manages to knock down too many others in its efforts to stand out from the crowd.

Rating: 6/10 – good performances from Swart and Puren keep Siembamba from dissembling under the weight of its (modest) ambitions, and though there is much that doesn’t work as well as it should, genre enthusiasts should seek this one out because of its provenance; neither great nor terrible, it’s to be hoped that South Africa doesn’t stop here in its attempts to make horror movies, because even though a lot of the movie is derivative of other work, there’s enough here to be hopeful for better things to come.