Wordless Horror Indie Lacks Visual Clarity

While the experimental premise of “Azrael” is commendable on paper — a wordless, gore-filled revenge indie about a woman escaping a religious cult, as well as zombies of some sort — the film finds itself unable to visually convey many basic tenets of its story. In struggling to reconcile image and meaning, it ends up yielding an uncanny experience that invites too many dueling interpretations, and not nearly enough emotional certainty.

After onscreen text establishes a post-apocalyptic setting, in which Christian extremists have given up “the sin of speech,” E.L. Katz’s horror film begins in medias res — to a fault. A young woman (Samara Weaving) with a crucifix branding on her throat makes her way through a forest, constantly looking over her shoulder, before silently admonishing her romantic partner (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) for lighting a fire. Both actors are committed to the bit, gesticulating wildly and passionately, but the specifics of their performances clash with the movie’s premise.

Though it’s eventually implied that they’ve been mute all their lives, the characters behave as if they’ve only just stopped speaking moments ago, right as the cameras rolled. They don’t seem to have figured out any shorthand methods of communication or understanding, which hints at flimsy worldbuilding and leads to a malformed romantic dynamic between them. Rather than people who understand each other, they behave like strangers thrown together by dangerous circumstances, though there’s little clarity about what those circumstances are.

When the pair are subsequently captured by armed, militarized members of their cult, Weaving’s character is bound, and her shin is sliced with a razor until she bleeds, seemingly to attract something in the wilderness. But whether or not blood is the ultimate catalyst here also remains unclear; the cultists soon begin heaving and breathing out loud as if to summon something from the deep.

This turns out to be a zombie-like ghoul with darkened, crumbling skin, perhaps from immolation, and it has a thirst for human flesh. Weaving manages to get free and begins scouring the forest for Stewart-Jarrett, as light comes pouring through the trees in eye-popping ways. She doesn’t speak or call for him, but the film rarely presents the risks or consequences of speaking out loud by portraying the desire to do so. There are eventual hints that this lifelong mutism may be surgical, between the scars and the characters’ heavy breathing and occasional silent screams, but there are just as many sound choices that hint otherwise — grunts and vocalizations that, while wordless, have the distinct tenor of human voices.

Why Weaving is on the run remains a mystery. Is she trying to evade oppressive circumstances we never see? Was the ritualistic zombie sacrifice a punishment for running away, or what she was escaping in the first place? The film’s casting choices might provide hints at to what’s really going on — Weaving is white, while Stewart-Jarrett is Black, and few Black cult members can be seen — though while the film invites the possibility that its villains have an anti-miscegenation bent, the lack of clarity continues to mount through unwieldy symbolism. While certain scenes and story choices, like Stewart-Jarrett being chained to a tree stump, and an instance of a body being hanged from a tree, further conjure triggering images of anti-Black racism throughout American history, they seldom amount to a coherent thesis statement that applies to the movie’s premise.

The film’s attempts at religious worldbuilding only lead to further ambiguity. The cult’s creaking, wooden church, run by a pregnant priestess, is filled with paintings implied to be premonitions, and Weaving’s character ends up imbued with some sort of supernatural ability to glimpse future events herself. However,the film doesn’t touch on whether this ability is connected to her persecution, or merely happenstance, making it tough to get invested in each new development.

Apart from a handful of delightfully violent moments, “Azrael” seldom rises to the level of viscerally shocking in its moments of gore and bloodshed, many of which are obscured by shadow. Its sound design is cacophonous, emphasizing every footstep, breath and gunshot to a disorienting degree, despite being rooted in the POV of characters whose hearing, and whose relationship to atmospheric sound, is ostensibly run-of-the-mill. This isn’t “A Quiet Place” after all, where sound triggers danger and doom, but perhaps more considered technical worldbuilding might’ve resulted in the viewer being further drawn into Weaving’s surroundings through her perspective.

“Azrael,” though seldom outright scary, contains chilling hints of the occult and the supernatural, once its apparent premonitions come to pass. However, their assemblage within the edit hints less at a relationship between Weaving’s character and these visions, and more at attempts to convey explanations and plot points to the audience where the image has been unable to do so. While it features instances of righteous bloodshed (its title refers to an angel of vengeance), what its heroine is fighting for or against is too uncertain for even the most vicious action beats to be emotionally rousing.


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