[Review] Breathing In [Brooklyn Horror Film Festival]: South African Supernatural Chiller Holds Its Secrets Close 

I found writer/director Jaco Bouwer’s gothic folk horror Breathing In (South Africa, 2023) wonderful to look at but confusing in its plot and ultimate aim. I’m all for ambiguity in horror films when done well, but like-minded viewers may find the proceedings here as baffling as the soldier Brand (Sven Ruygrok), the protagonist who finds himself alternately bewitched and revolted by a mother and daughter in an isolated small home in 1901 South Africa during the Second Anglo-Boer War.

Anna (Jamie-Lee Money) and her young adult daughter Annie (Michele Burgers) live in the aforementioned abode, with Anna tending to her daughter in near-whispers and dropping enigmatic information such as how Annie is almost too weak to stand, and how she can never fall asleep — when we meet Annie, she has a leather device strapped to her head and her chair to prevent dozing off. We already know that something is off with the pair before Brand makes his entrance to check on his elderly, wounded, and possibly dying general (Lionel Newton), who Anna has been assigned to cure through esoteric means.

Anna has obviously been preparing Annie (Michele Burgers) for Brand’s visit, much to the young woman’s meek protestations. With hints dropped about having to travel only by night and with Brand obviously falling under a spell of enchantment and doing things against his better judgment — such as wearing the boots of a dead enemy soldier — the slow-burn proceedings lead to a third act that is not entirely unexpected but that still leaves viewers with questions.

Bouwer, who also helmed 2021’s Gaia, invests Breathing In with a constantly ominous flair, assisted impressively by the sparse but effective set design and Jorrie van der Walt’s splendid cinematography. Based on Reza de Wet’s play of the same title, Breathing In does have the feel of a filmed play at times, though some scenes are set just outside the structure. This approach certainly adds to the claustrophobic vibe of this chamber piece, but again, it often feels as though you are watching a play on film. The highly stylized performances are very good, but hushed tones are sometimes difficult to make out.  

Overall, I found Breathing In to be a challenging watch and though it refuses to give all of its secrets away, I can recommend the film to arthouse horror aficionados and those who enjoy moody, brooding, dread-filled slices of fear-fare cinema.

Breathing In screened as part of  Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, which took place from October 12–19, 2023. 

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Joseph Perry
Joseph Perry fell in love with horror films as a preschooler when he first saw the Gill-Man swim across the TV screen in "The Creature from The Black Lagoon" and Mothra battle Godzilla in "Godzilla Vs. The Thing.” His education in fright fare continued with TV series such as "The Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits," along with legendary northern California horror host Bob Wilkins’ "Creature Features." His love for silver age and golden age comic books, including horror titles from Gold Key, Dell, and Marvel started around age 5.

He is a contributing writer for the "Phantom of the Movies VideoScope" and “Drive-In Asylum” print magazines and the websites Horror Fuel, Diabolique Magazine, The Scariest Things, B&S About Movies, and When It Was Cool. He is a co-host of the "Uphill Both Ways" pop culture nostalgia podcast and also writes for its website. Joseph occasionally proudly co-writes articles with his son Cohen Perry, who is a film critic in his own right.

A former northern Californian and Oregonian, Joseph has been teaching, writing, and living in South Korea since 2008.