Belgian import Duyster is makes its American premiere at this year’s Buried Alive Film Festival. As the audience is informed by an opening text crawl, the scenes they are about to view are the recovered footage of a trio of students. The group had been filming a project for a college assignment before mysteriously disappearing in February of 2020.
Nora (Maïmouna Badjie) is the confident, capable on camera narrator and interviewer, occasionally joined by the more sardonic and abrasive Milan (Charles De Meester). The comparatively level headed and reserved Bas (Tristan Feyten) stays almost entirely behind the camera. Part of this might just be an extension of his baseline personality, but it also might be a way to avoid getting caught in the middle of Nora and Milan’s conflicts regarding what exactly they want their documentary to be.
Their chosen subject is the titular Johannes Duyster, who served as the city of Antwerp’s official executioner in the early 17th century, before abruptly dropping off the historical record. They schedule a series of interviews, their conversations taking them from city archives to the prison where Duyster would have done his dirtiest work (now conveniently a tourist attraction). How did a man in such a prominent position (and his entire family) just vanish?
First time feature directors Jordi Ostir and Thomas Vanbrabant don’t stray too far from familiar screenlife/found footage aesthetics, but Duyster is refreshingly free of super shaky handheld camera work through the bulk of its runtime, as our protagonists are trying to create a more professional final product. Antwerp is a beautiful city, and the directors do make smart use of the monuments and architecture, carefully framing exteriors to add a bit more polish to relatively simple shots.
While the first half of the film is basically all world building interviews, the lore Thomas Vanbrabant’s script sets up is an interesting mix of period facts and fiction, moving Duyster away from historical hack and slash territory into something more broadly supernatural and long reaching. There’s a few quick nods to some more famous films that deal in similar territory along the way, in a charming show of enthusiasm for genre.
However, the further Duyster tries to expand its universe, the more the found footage structure becomes a massive albatross. The film crashes into the usual pitfalls of immersion breaking impossible angles and increasingly implausible explanations for the camera to be running. The middle section is bogged down by one scene characters that only exist to further the faux documentary conceit. This time would be better spent developing the relationships of our three protagonists, as there’s some intrapersonal plot threads that don’t really receive much resolution at all.
While the found footage format is a common cost saving measure for minimally resourced productions, it would have been relatively easy to make the same film without the meta element. In fact, removing the mockumentary hook would actually help all of Duyster‘s various elements more cohesively gel, and not bury the film’s most interesting ideas underneath that subgenre’s tropes.
As it stands, this admirably plucky but uneven film feels like the filmmakers were trying to split the difference between offering audiences something familiar, and tentatively introducing their own more original ideas. Not until the final third does Duyster lean in to its strongest aspects, focusing on the lore surrounding the executioner and a confident and likable performance by leading lady Maïmouna Badjie. I hope that the the the crew behind Duyster get to at some point make the movie that this film’s final twenty minutes hints at, as that looks like it would be a more distinctive and enjoyable indie genre effort.
Wicked Rating– 4.5/10
Directors: Jordi Ostir, Thomas Vanbrabant
Writer: Thomas Vanbrabant
Stars: Maïmouna Badjie, Tristan Feyten, Charles De Meester
Release date: October 30th 2021 (Razor Reel Flanders Film Festival)
Run Time: 81 minutes