Film Review: “The Devil’s Bath” — The Horror of Humanity

By Peg Aloi

The Devil’s Bath demands your full engagement; along with its primordial intensity, a great deal of subtle intelligence lies beneath its visceral surface.

Anja Plaschg in The Devil’s Bath. Photo:Shudder

The Austrian filmmaking team of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala had an auspicious feature debut in 2024 with the subtle yet terrifying horror film Goodnight Mommy. The American remake in 2022 by Matt Sobel (whose debut Take Me to the River was promising) could not hold a candle to it. Now, with the Shudder premiere of The Devil’s Bath, the team of Franz and Fiala have crafted a masterfully chilling — and nuanced — historical folk horror story. Astute viewers may also discern a rather brutal commentary on the centuries old plight of women who find themselves trapped in domestic servitude.

The film opens with a brief prologue. In the rural uplands of Austria in the 18th century a baby is crying in a basket. A young boy, presumably the baby’s older brother, coos and fusses over him. Then a slightly older woman, possibly the baby’s mother, picks him up swaddled in his blankets and walks through the forest, carrying him. What happens next sets the tone for the backdrop of this story. The woman commits a shocking act, confesses it, and is brutally punished. Her body is placed on display in the forest — it becomes a place of pilgrimage. Her fate is entwined with the local folklore, her grim story one of superstition, an example of cautionary martyrdom.

After this prologue (painted in rich strokes via Martin Gschlacht’s cinematography) establishes the setting, the scene turns to a small country wedding taking place between Agnes (Anja Plaschg in a powerful performance) and Wolf (an expressive David Scheid). Agnes’ family bids her farewell and her brother gives her a strange relic which we later learn is a sort of fertility charm. Agnes seems shy, Wolf seems affable, and the village celebrates their union. The festivities feature food and dancing and a small brief pantomime in which Agnes is given a baby to care for. Wolf takes her to the forest to show her a surprise; it seems as the marriage will be consummated at this time, but he just wants to reveal the house he has bought for her. It’s a cave-like dwelling in the middle of the woods, far from the village and community that Agnes knows. She tries not betray her disappointment with such crude living conditions — or at the fact that Wolf’s mother will be living with the couple part of the time.

A scene from The Devil’s Bath. Photo: Shudder

The couple’s wedding night is a quiet, dimly-lit disaster. Subtle clues point to underlying reasons for Wolf’s lack of sexual interest in Agnes. Despite his rejection of her affections, however, he seems to be a kind man. But Wolf is nowhere to be found the morning after their wedding and Agnes searches the nearby forest. A trio of children, giggling, lead her to a gruesome spectacle, a bit of grim foreshadowing as Agnes contemplates the fate of the woman in the prologue. Agnes then finds her mother-in-law and a group of villagers; they are fishing in a muddy pond. She is expected to pitch in and help with this grueling work. Agnes labors under the harsh direction of Wolf’s mother. The job is exhausting and filthy: participants are given very little to eat except dry crusts of bread.

Back home, Agnes does her best to keep the house clean and prays nightly for a child. The assumption is that, with a baby, Agnes would be lifted out of what has become a dull, draining routine. She clearly suffers from sadness and loneliness; that, and her failure to be a dutiful wife by conceiving a child, invites unspoken but clear suspicions of witchcraft. Even her birth family rejects Agnes’ pleas for help. As her desperation grows, Agnes looks for a way to escape, but she is dominated by religious piety and superstition rather than courage or tenacity. On the surface, The Devil’s Bath is a straightforward story of people who live very simple and grueling lives, an existence ruled by poverty, need, and the struggle to survive. Eventually, though, we witness a bloodthirsty rite that is symptomatic of a profoundly sick society: one that subdues and brutalizes women for merely daring to exist. The horrors depicted are not far removed from similar atrocities that persist for women today. And that may be the point.

Contemporary folk horror often derives its tone and trappings from older stories tied to specific locations and cultures. Some of these backstories can be crudely drawn. But The Devil’s Bath is not a vague arcadian thriller populated by antlered beasts and shadowy legends: this is a flesh-and blood depiction of real life, daily life as a harsh litany of suffering and emptiness for those at the bottom. Franz and Fiala have ventured from their usual clean, cold depictions of modern existence into much more primal territory. And they succeed; excellent casting and painstaking production design create a densely atmospheric world. The Devil’s Bath demands your full engagement; along with its primordial intensity, a great deal of subtle intelligence lies beneath its visceral surface.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Critics Choice Awards, and the Alliance for Women Film Journalists. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She has written on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Dread Central, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Refinery29, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.

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