Since horror grew up in the late 1960s, religion has become a favorite theme in the genre. Although religion had been in horror from the beginning, Rosemary’s Baby marked a definite sea change. More and more religion has been moving from a subsidiary theme to the main vehicle of horror. Małgorzata Szumowska’s The Other Lamb is a case in point. “Shepherd” is the leader of a separatist religion that consists only of women. The premise itself is creepy enough, but it becomes clear that Shepherd—the group literally has a flock of sheep—physically abuses the women. They are divided into two groups: sisters and wives. When unexplained things happen, Shepherd gives prophetic pronouncements. His followers are expected to accept everything he says on blind faith. Many religions do this by proclaiming faith against evidence a virtue.
One thing that I’ve emphasized in various presentations I’ve done is that Christianity, and perhaps all religions, work because believers are great followers. While Shepherd uses biblical-sounding language, there are no Bibles in the film. There are recognizably Christian themes, but the doctrine isn’t familiar. Part of the reason, obviously, is that Christianity has a negative view of sex and Shepherd treats his flock as his harem. The women follow because he “rescued” them from worse situations and their communal life is better. Only it’s not. When a woman director stands behind such a film, there’s clearly a message being sent about male privilege. Any system set up with male superiority will lead to abuse. When Shepherd’s enclave in the woods is discovered, they must move. He instructs the women that they are going to find Eden.
Throughout, the movie is more creepy than scary in the traditional sense. There are no jump-startles, but the situation makes you sense that something’s not right. The women, acclimated to this lifestyle, many of them for years, know no other way of being or even where to go. They have no vehicles. Forced to move, they walk—Shepherd carries nothing while the women backpack out supplies. Once Eden, on the shore of a lake, is reached, Shepherd baptizes the sisters and drowns the wives so the younger women can take their place. You get the sense throughout that this movie is a parable. Men like to take the privilege of determining women’s fates without understanding women’s needs. This new kind of horror is insightful and symbolic. There is no final girl when women band together. The Other Lamb deserves wider exposure than it’s had. It’s a good example of what religion can do to those who simply follow.