The narrative around cults both in fiction and the real world is that the paternal figure gains power only to drag his followers down, and that arc certainly has real-world precedence that would be impossible to ignore. Cult leaders, from Charles Manson and Jim Jones to any number of lesser-known figures, tend to revolve around a central, often male, leader who gains power, becomes overwhelmed by his own paranoid rants, and ultimately causes the deaths of several followers.
While this is all true to life, it isn’t all there is to the sociological phenomenon of cults. Often, women are utilized as weapons against other women, drawing each other into an increasingly horrifying lifestyle via assurances of sisterhood despite overwhelming patriarchal overtones. Yet still, there are the children that are simply born into cults, who are raised within a world of indoctrination and cannot imagine a world outside of that. It is here that filmmaker Małgorzata Szumowska finds her inspiration for her film, The Other Lamb (2019).
A Shepard and His Flock
Selah (Raffey Cassidy) is one of the blue-dressed daughters of Shepard (Michiel Huisman), a cult leader who surrounds himself with a group of women referred to as “Sisters,” and their red-dressed counterpart, “Mothers.” The Mothers are women who he has slept with and who have borne him children while the Sisters are his daughters. Children that are not gendered as female are cast out and left to die, but that is not known to us at the beginning of the tale.
They gather in a clearing, surrounded by trees wrapped in rows and rows of white thread, and begin a ritual in which Shepard rants wildly about providing them protection and sanctuary from the outside world. He kills a lamb with a knife as a blood sacrifice, and the women begin chanting and yelling with wild fervor as he wipes blood over their faces. He speaks to Selah alone and his demeanor towards her is that of a lover, not of a father.
Selah falls asleep when she’s supposed to be delivering a lamb, and the infant animal is torn to shreds by wild dogs. Though she is forgiven, when police show up to tell the cult they’ll have to move along due to the fact that they’re only occupying land, the tension between her and Shepard begins to build. He tells her that he’s counting on her to keep the other women in line, but as she watches him make increasingly harmful choices and secretly speaks with a woman named Sarah (Denise Gough) who knew Selah’s mother, her doubts only grow.
Where Does The Other Lamb Go?
The Other Lamb sets a dreamy, gauzy tone from the opening scene, but the camera finds a perfect focus in Selah’s anger. She watches Shepard begin making love to one of the Wives through the fire one night after he refuses to let them sleep in an abandoned house. Later, when the wife is free, she tearfully shows Selah her throat, which bears red marks that tell us that he was violently choking her during sex.
In the beginning, Selah is enamored with Shepard. He is her father and she is his favorite, so she is given preferential treatment over the other women. In the beginning, she genuinely believes it’s because they are impure and she is not, but when Sarah tells her of how her mother died because Shepard refused to allow her to go to the hospital, Selah begins to seethe. She imagines herself in another world with her mother and other women and no paternalistic figure to hold them down. Yet, the dream is fleeting, and Shepard is still there.
Shepard ultimately goes too far, as so many cult leaders do, and the Sisters destroy him. Sarah once told Selah to always remember her strength, and through this, Selah truly finds it for the first time.
The Feminist Subversion of Horror’s “Cult” Trope
For a film that basks in the art of metaphor and dream logic, there are many shockingly brutal moments to be found here. An allegory about the societal taboo of menstruation permeates the film, leaving no question of an inherently feminist slant to the story. The brutalized lambs traumatize Selah, and she dreams of herself drenched in blood. Shepard’s interest in his daughter is mortifying, and the slow revelation of his violent tendencies make for an uneasy slow burn at the center of the film. Selah’s judgments towards the other women quickly melt into sympathy and even sisterhood. The girl she appears to us as when the movie begins is gone by the time it ends.
The Other Lamb doesn’t offer any sure solutions, but it does pose plenty of poignant questions. As Selah defeats Shepard, we cut to her holding an infant lamb lovingly in her arms. Whether she will spare the lamb, and raise it with love, or if she will fall into Shepard’s patterns with her newly found power, we will never find out. Yet the unapologetic anger that seethes behind her eyes assures us that, whatever the case, she won’t spend her life as the Wives spent theirs.
About the Author
Sara Century is a contributing writer for Manor Vellum. She is a writer of short stories, articles about comics and film, and many, many zines. She is also an artist, comic creator, filmmaker, and podcaster, and she used to be a musician. She’s written for SyFy.com, StarTrek.com, Bustle, Gayly Dreadful, and many more. Visit her website at SaraCentury.com. Find Sara’s webcomic with Tana Thornock and her podcast about comics with SE Fleenor. Follow her on Twitter @SaraCentury.