A recent film that may be off the radar for most werewolf aficionados is the Estonian-made November, an adaptation of the popular novel Rehepapp by Andrus Kivirähk. (Well, it’s popular in Estonia.) Written for the screen and directed by Rainer Sarnet, November contrasts its bleak, medieval landscapes (filmed in luminous black and white by cinematographer Mart Taniel) with the fantastical creatures its inhabitants come into contact with on a regular basis. The first, in fact, is a wolf that a young woman named Liina (Rea Lest) either turns into or merely has a deep psychological link with. (There’s sufficient evidence for either interpretation.) And she’s not the only one with such tendencies because later on a German baroness (Jette Loona Hermanis) found sleepwalking by her father is told she can’t help herself. “It’s your illness,” he says. “There’s a full moon tonight.” Perhaps she’s simply going out in search of her peasant counterpart.
At any rate, the two women are part of an unrequited love triangle since Liina believes she’s destined to marry the strapping young Hans (Jörgen Liik), about the only age-appropriate suitor for her in the village. (Liina’s father repeatedly tries to pawn her off on a much older man, an arrangement she forcefully shrugs off.) Meanwhile, once Hans catches sight of the baroness he’s instantly, hopelessly smitten, inspiring both him and Liina to resort to desperate remedies. While she goes to a witch to reclaim Hans and comes to believe her only option is to kill her rival, he meets the Devil at a crossroads and exchanges his soul for one for a snowman he has built that gives him advice (which, it turns out, is mostly unhelpful).
Far from being a figure of childlike whimsy, the snowman is but one of many beings in the film called kratts that are made out of farming equipment and imbued with life (or at the very least locomotion) so they can perform menials tasks for their masters. Unnervingly enough, the first one Sarnet shows us is three scythes fastened together with an animal skull at the center, and the first thing it does is steal its master’s cow and take flight, ferrying the bewildered animal through the air like a helicopter until both come crashing down. You know the saying idle hands do the Devil’s work? Well, idle kratts are pushy about asking for jobs (“A kratt needs to work” is their mantra), and if one’s master is slow to find things to occupy them, they’re liable to have their throat slit in the middle of the night.
In addition to witches, werewolves, kratts, and the Devil, November also features ghosts that come visit their families on All Souls’ Day. Instead of being formless spirits, though, they’re strangely corporeal, capable of eating, sleeping, and using saunas, all of which are prepared for them by their dutiful living kin. Even stranger, when the beasts (as Liina’s father calls them) enter a sauna, they become human-sized chickens, an amusing effect Sarnet accomplishes by placing regular-sized chickens in a model set. That kind of lo-fi approach to realizing the supernatural serves the film well, giving its most outlandish conceits a necessary grounding. By the time the plague arrives in town (first in the form of a beautiful woman before changing to a goat and a pig) and the proscribed remedy is for everyone to gather in a barn, take off their pants and wear them on their heads (because, as the village elder says, “The plague will think we have two asses and won’t dare to touch us”), it sounds downright reasonable.