The Book of Birdie imagines religious horror with glitter, gold, and open wounds

This fall, The Verge is making a choice. The choice is fear! We’ve decided to embrace the season by taking in as many new horror movies as possible and reporting back on which ones are worth your time. We’re calling this series Hold My Hand, as we look at films you might want to watch with a supportive viewing partner. Get comfortable, put the kettle on, check the closet for ghosts, then find a hand to squeeze until the bones pop.

Culturally, we don’t think enough about morbid girls. There aren’t very many of them in our movies, beyond the silent, violent ones Emily Yoshida described for Vulture earlier this year, writing about Logan, Stranger Things, and Game of Thrones: “Their age and increasing silence has become a handy crutch for writers who might otherwise have a harder time bringing female leads to life.” Young women in movies tend to be just as confused as young men are, but with way less room to be super weird about it.

This fall has produced two standout entries into the tiny genre of morbid female coming-of-age films so far, a happy coincidence after the year kicked off with Julia Ducournau’s “teen girl cannibal movie” Raw. The first was Anita Rocha da Silveira’s debut Kill Me Please (actually released in Brazil in 2015, but just now making its way to the US), which followed a group of teenage girls as their ringleader nursed an obsession with a local serial killer’s beautiful young victims. The second is The Book of Birdie, another film from a first-time feature director. This time it’s Elizabeth E. Schuch, an established art director and production designer who worked on Wonder Woman and the upcoming Pacific Rim: Uprising, as well as half a dozen non-fiction TV series with names as morbid as Inside the Human Body and Barbarians Rising.

The Book of Birdie is about a wide-eyed 13-year-old girl (Ilirida Memedovski) abandoned by her grandmother in a Wisconsin convent. She’s quiet enough to convince the nuns that she’s an innocent, devoted servant of God. But on her first night there, she wakes up in a pool of blood, having miscarried something that may or may not be a fetus. She names it Ignatius and pickles it for safekeeping. Then she starts stealing Christmas decorations to build shrines to St. Philomena, the patron saint of infants and youth, who was murdered and martyred at age 13. Birdie doesn’t speak much when she’s alone with her art projects. She just fills jars with her own blood and dribbles it over her face and teeth before saying her prayers.

She’s talkative only when she’s around the groundskeeper’s daughter, Julia (Kitty Hall), who brings her comic books and kisses her by the lake. Or when she’s interacting with the ghosts of various nuns who killed themselves in the convent. One is nice, and chats with Birdie amicably while she eats a daily sandwich by the tree where the nun hung herself. Another ghost watches her while she climbs the bell tower at night, and hisses “Satan knows where he’s welcome.”

One review of The Book of Birdie referred to it as “fantasy-horror at its girly best,” which feels fair for a film involving so much glitter and blood, and a hallucination of a pair of ovaries ripping themselves lose from an abdomen and flying away into the wilderness. It’s also girly coming-of-age at its morbid best, and the perfect piece of melancholy for a dark fall afternoon.

Is it scary?

Yes. Only lightly, because it’s a slow-moving story that takes place mostly within six inches of the main character’s face. But if a dead nun was whispering to you that your body carried the “stench of Satan,” wouldn’t that freak you out a little bit? Wouldn’t that make you want to think about slowly draining all of the blood from your own body and keeping it in a suitcase? If you were the Mother Superior of a small, rural convent, wouldn’t finding a suitcase of blood under a teenage girl’s bed be enough to make you thoroughly lose it?

Tangential to Birdie’s story, one of the nuns is asked persistent questions by a parishioner who’s baffled by her personal failure at conversing with God. She wants to know everything there is to know about stigmata, Catholicism’s term for the wounds Jesus suffered on the cross, and she’s eager to hear stories about people who were chosen for the “gift” of experiencing similar wounds. Birdie is obsessed with blood because it won’t stop coming out of her, but this lady is obsessed with blood because it won’t stop staying put. Somehow, in the dreamscape of The Book of Birdie, both these things feel equally terrifying.

Will I care about the characters?

Yes. Birdie has a spectacular imagination that’s a delight to spend time in, even when it’s an alarming, overeager commentary on the gross fascinations and obvious hypocrisies of the Catholic church. Sitting by the water after a long day of confusing conversation with various old nuns — some sympathetic, and others relentless gossips — Birdie looks across the lake and tries to see the edge of Michigan, but can’t. She asks Julia, “Are these things real just because people tell us they are?”

My heart shriveled into a little piece of beef jerky when Julia laughed at her and said, “No. Michigan is real.” Well okay, Julia, I don’t know that you really understood the question! Birdie, like so many young girls who are constantly hearing condescending declarations about how special they are, is also written off as deeply stupid at every turn. Fortunately, we’re on her side, and we have no choice about it, as we’re hanging out within six inches of her face for two hours.

book of birdie

book of birdie

Is it visually impressive?

Yes. Birdie’s dreams are illustrated with paper puppets and comic book pages re-imagined as illuminated manuscripts. The movie was filmed on the edge of Lake Michigan in January, at a mansion owned by one of Wisconsin’s first Congressional representatives, Charles Durkee. It’s gorgeous, and — given the general over-representation of Catholic churches in the horror genre — surprising that it manages to look so freshly unnerving.

book of birdie

book of birdie

What’s lurking beneath the surface?

The Book of Birdie is most enjoyable as a moody horror poem, but if I had to pull out a theme, I might point back to its place in the female coming-of-age canon. We still don’t really know what to do with girls whose personalities, fascinations, or passions don’t fit into a standard archetype, which is why so few movies like The Book of Birdie exist, and why Birdie’s life trajectory ends up following St. Philomena’s step for step. There are a lot of stories about oddballs being crushed by societal structures just for being different, so that’s not so potent or interesting an idea in itself, but this one is specifically about a 13-year-old girl oddball. I’m glad it exists, and I’m angry that it feels so special by that measure alone. If I started writing down a list of movies about teen boy oddballs, I’d be writing it until hell froze over.

How can I watch it?

The Book of Birdie had its North American debut at the Brooklyn Horror Festival earlier this month, and according to the film’s website, there will be more US dates scheduled soon. It’s been making the rounds at horror festivals in Europe and the US since its premiere in Sweden in January.

Is it a hand-holding movie?

Maybe! Thinking about mystical, God-granted hand wounds for two hours could make you want to pass off the responsibility for holding your palm skin in place. Just for a little while. That might be nice.

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