This sub-genre has always been around but in recent years, there’s definitely been an uptick of Horror films falling under the banner of “Art Horror” or “Elevated Horror”. Without naming names, because we try to keep it positive in these pages, there have been some recent much-hyped about ones that we found to either be trying too hard, heavy handed, or just plain boring. Pou (Peacock) from director Jaco Minnaar, however, is one such film that hits all the right notes.
It’s a slow burn for sure but one that is fascinating to watch unfold. Partly because the story by Minnaar and David Cornwell is so solid and partly due to the charisma exuded by leads Tarryn Wyngaard and Johan Botha. Anna (Wyngaard) is a queer person in a non-queer society at The Foundation (A religious-based home for girls/caretaker school). Having been outed after a particularly provocative encounter with friend Vicki (Liza Van Deventer), Anna is sent away to be the carer for one of The Foundation’s architects, theologian Sarel Cilliers (Botha), whose last caretaker “Wasn’t up to task”. Picked up extraordinarily late on her first night in town after a long journey by Dr. Basson (Alida Theron) we soon meet Basson’s grandson Jean (Ruan Wessels), an awkward young man who Anna later secretly follows to a local drag club (Which features a performance from Hermie Wonderboy).
Upon arriving at Oom Sarel’s (“Oom”, we discovered, is frequently a respectful form of address in relation to older men in Afrikaaner culture) isolated abode, we find him alone outside looking up at a large tree in the main yard and muttering to himself. The strangeness doesn’t end there as Anna discovers a padlocked room in the attic with music frequently emanating from within. Then there’s the case of the caged peacock on the premises who awakens Anna on her first morning at Sarel’s. And also the picture in Anna’s room of a woman who may or may not be Sarel’s daughter but looks uncannily like Vicki. Oom Sarel himself is an odd one, constantly making a mess of his office after Anna has tidied, because he has “important work to do” despite being retired. Sarel is also a bit old fashioned when it comes to views on marriage (With regards to Anna pointing out that maybe she doesn’t want to take a husband over dinner: “Then you’ll be forever lost in the wilderness”) and kind of an old perv when, having been asked about the identity of the woman in the photo in Anna’s room, he remarks “pretty girl” with a nasty grin then proceeds to piss himself followed by an awkward bath.
Mysteries revolving the peacock, Sarel’s daughter, and the origins of The Foundation as well as strange visions deepen and are accented by a piano-driven score by Clancy Paris (And a great Night Owl Radio track over the credits) which matches the cinematography by Jonathan Kovel exquisitely in that they’re both gorgeous from the start (And holy hell, the symbolism in this thing! If I had half the brains that my junior high Mythology teacher had this would be a very, VERY long review). It’s a journey of self-discovery for Anna after being exiled from The Foundation with her new job and this isolation that forces her to stick up for herself, fight for what she believes in, and be proud of who she is in regards to her sexuality. It’s this new freedom she imparts on the closeted Jean following a rather tense attempted departure toward film’s end that leads to a stunning finale that’s shockingly empowering despite its’ dark nature.
Pou (Peacock) arrives at Cinema Salem on Sunday, April 30th at 330PM EST for its’ Massachusetts Premiere as part of the 2023 Salem Horror Fest and presented in Afrikaan with English subtitles. Get more info on that here and on the rest of the 2023 program here.