Pou or Peacock is one of the best and most elegant horror dramas to come out of South Africa. A feature film directorial debut by Jaco Minnaar, starring Tarryn Wyngaard and Johan Botha, the film centres on a woman who’s banished from a puritanical organisation and forced to care for one of its founding members at an isolated farm house.
From a strict boarding school environment, Anna’s thrust into the open spaces of an old farm to nurse ailing and disturbed Apartheid-era theologian, Sarel. There to serve out a punishment for her flagrant disregard for the organisation’s rules and be taken in hand by a man struggling to come to terms with his own demons, things devolve as a slow-burning stand off between the new and old ensues.
This is what one would describe as elevated horror, an atmospheric film that delves into the dark recesses of the Afrikaner psyche and explores the evolution of staunch moral codes against the trappings of conservatism. Minnaar delivers a beautifully-crafted horror, tipping the hat to the work of David Lynch, Ari Aster and Robert Eggers in composing this eerie, unsettling and stylish gothic horror. While hinting at its dark film influences with some homages, it doesn’t let go of the wheel, drawing a seething and nightmarish vision without slipping into someone else’s dream.
Wyngaard’s enigmatic character is enhanced by her enchanting beauty in a bold and transformative performance that recalls The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Black Swan. While best known for Stam, Noem My Skollie and Raised by Wolves, Wyngaard demonstrates she’s more than up to the task of headlining with a wide-eyed yet iconic leading role. Embracing the madness, she steadies the story with assured screen presence.
whistling *Why do birds suddenly appear…*
A stark contrast in almost all respects, Botha’s performance is just as brave and haunting, inhabiting every nook of his afflicted patriarchal relic of a character. Completely invested in his own insanity, it seems a pity the filmmakers didn’t stretch out the suspense of his unsettling introduction. The Foundation’s co-conspirators include Alida Theron and Nicola Hanekom as a Nurse Ratched type matron with Liza van Deventer as a Laura Palmer type and Ruan Wessels as a possible outsider.
While the story’s brushstrokes are broad and themes are lofty, the mesmerising cinematography and edit keeps pace with the dark gothic tone of this visually-striking horror drama. There’s a tendency to taper off rather than over-explain, enabling the uncertainty and ambiguity of the situation to fester. While Minnaar shows his appreciation for the genre with a core understanding that extends beyond tribute, he’s equally well-versed enough to leverage the film’s greatest assets. While operating on a modest budget, Pou remains transfixed on Wyngaard, Botha and the spooky farmhouse, elements that combine quite magically to create suspense in simply co-existing.
Pou is a daring film, grappling with some contentious and timely issues relating to brainwashing, culture, gender, identity, religion and sexuality. Horror serves as a wonderful springboard, using allegory to unpack weighty issues from an emotional and metaphorical standpoint rather than going head on. This dark poetic undertow into the surreal is further heightened by references to a fable about a gift peacock. Slipping in and out of reality, the production design and styling all contribute to the film’s uneasy and out-of-time feel.
While this elevated gothic horror drama has finesse, grace and substance, there are some moments that require further exploration and others where it could have been reined in. Having studied the contemporary masters of dark surreal horror, Pou’s magpie affectations are noticeable but easily forgiven in just how well it all sits together. Made on a fraction of the cost of its influences, it’s quite amazing to see what Minnaar’s achieved with his dedicated cast and crew. Being relatively niche, the film’s themes may resonate more strongly for South Africans but the social undercurrents have enough universal appeal to be enjoyed by genre fans worldwide.
Pou is an ambitious horror but one that rarely oversteps the mark, conjuring up spellbinding visuals and an eerie atmosphere to complement the storytelling. Fielding solid performances and showcasing a seasoned knowledge of the genre, it’s a film of great beauty and restraint. There are glimmers of true brilliance where everything comes together quite masterfully. While one senses that Minnaar is still finding his “voice”, one can only hope that Pou serves as a small taste of what’s still to come from its brimming talents.
The bottom line: Mesmerising