Ilé Owó (2022): The Definition of Style over Substance

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Ile Owo, Film poster

First, a brief story from when I went to see Ilé Owó. There was some difference between the time on the website and the actual time it was showing. Fortunately, even with the change, I got there early. When I entered the screening room, the lights were down, the music was up, and for a minute, I thought I had stepped through a portal, everything felt surreal. Imagine being in a completely dark room with music playing at full volume. Am I being tortured, pranked? I thought. Is this a social experiment? I was a bit lost. After my eyes got used to the absence of light, I was able to make out a face– a woman’s– in the aisle behind. I asked her if this was the screening room for Ilé Owó and she replied in the affirmative. She said she had seen it before but had missed the beginning that time, and was back now to catch it. Interesting. We traded a couple more sentences back and forth before I settled down to the movie. And then suddenly, while the room was still without light, and the music was still on full blast, I heard a scream coming from directly behind me. The voice belonged to a child. A toddler. My fight-or-flight response kicked in immediately as my body tried to decide which of the above options was necessary in this situation. Heart rate increased. Breathing spiked. In those three seconds before I realized what was going on, I was the definition of “on edge.” 

Turns out the woman I had been talking with had had a child with her the whole time. I just had not noticed this because of the noise and eerie darkness. At that point, the screen came on and some light shone on the room. And I was able to observe everything in detail. The woman glanced at me, wondering if I was alright. I glanced at the child to make sure it was actually a child and not a paid actor hired to crawl through the aisles and scream at certain intervals, keeping the audience spooked– I hear distributors are getting creative with their releases these days. The paranoia was real. I’m recounting that story because it’s important that you understand the state of mind I was in when I saw Ilé Owó. I’m sure if the director could bottle this particular experience and sell it to viewers he would. It’s one thing to watch a horror movie at the cinema, with surround sound and a wide screen coupled with the inability to press pause during intense scenes. It’s different when you have just been scared to death by the screams of a child. 

Ilé Owó is the latest outing from writer-director, Dare Olaitan. Described as more a psychological thriller than horror (I’m not sure I agree), the story begins with a narration about Akanni Owo, a dangerous and powerful man who desires eternal life. He goes to a witch, Fijabi Olojuina, to see about having his desires granted but she informs him that it’s already too late. His life has been claimed by the powers that be. However, there is still hope for his sons; they can be given the means to live forever, never tasting death. The deity known as Sagbadewe only wants one thing in return: a ritual sacrifice of an innocent young woman which must be offered every 25 years without fail. The movie opens with a scene showing one of these sacrifices. Sophie Alakija’s Tomisin is standing in a clearing in the forest, in a trance of some sorts. All of a sudden, horned figures approach her, moving as ones possessed. This scene sets the tone of the film: bleak and over-the-top. Olaitan is determined to rub our noses in the darkness and not let go, or so it initially appears. The sacrifice is carried out. Evil wins this time. There is no Deus ex machina. This is the groundwork the film lays.  

The horned figures crowd round a bowl, looking for their next victim. It turns out to be a young Christian woman, Busola, (Immaculata Oko-Kasum) with a prayer warrior for a mother (Tina MBA) and a cultist for a father (Akin Lewis). On her way out one morning, she notices a figurine in front of their house and alerts her mother who begins to pray and douse the spot in anointing oil. While they’re praying, the camera reveals that the figurine has moved to the roof, as an ominous score rings out, the combination of which is meant to rattle the audience. Ilé Owó is full of cool moments like this. Cool shots, cool music, even the concept seems highbrow and cool. The problem is that this coolness is built on a weak foundation: one-note characters and a plot riddled with holes. 

One of the themes of the movie is that all that glitters is not gold. Some would consider such a message overused, a tired cliché. I say otherwise. What matters is the execution. Every scene has already been done. What matters is its unique context. It is on this note that Ile Owó fails to deliver. Stephen King once said of horror stories, “If we don’t care, we don’t scare,” and in this film, we don’t care enough, because very little is revealed to us about anything. 

Busola meets Tunji (Efa Iwara) who courts her and eventually the pair get married. There is some suspense here because the audience understands that the reason he is being so good to her is because she is the victim of their next sacrifice. Here, the movie is stuck between letting us in on the goings-on of the story world but at the same time, it wants us to be invested in the entire thing. The experience ends up being very middle-of-the-road. It is obvious Busola will attempt to be sacrificed. Obvious that unlike Tomisin’s, it will not be successful. And yet the movie takes its sweet time to reach the finish line, culminating in an unsatisfying third act. At the end of the day, all we’ve experienced as an audience is eerie soundscapes, expressionistic lighting and jump scares. Not enough to sink our teeth into. Not enough to inspire lasting dread. 

If you’ve seen the 2019 film, Ready or Not, then you have an idea of what Ile Owó has to offer. A young woman marries into a family whose wealth was gotten by striking a deal with the devil. She must survive her wedding night as they hunt her down and offer her as sacrifice to the demonic power. What sets that film apart is that its protagonist is active. She is smart and resilient and moves the plot forward. The filmmakers also manage to wring a lot of dark comedy from the bleak circumstances. Finally, the supporting characters are actually given stuff to do and the commentary on class divide and struggle is well articulated. Ilé Owó on the other hand botches many of the aspects mentioned above. The blocking of the actors and the staging of the camera are commendable. The cinematography, which makes use of a lot of rack focus, to subtly shift the audience’s perspective in a scene, such as one where the Sagbadewe figurine shows up, is impeccable.  Still, all of these have to be in service of story. 

Given the review above, it might sound like I didn’t enjoy Ilé Owó. Far from it. I had a smile on my face when I was done. Like I said, it’s a cool concept. Bold on style. That’s always fun to watch. However, the story doesn’t make much sense (because the characters make unbelievable decisions and the rules of the story world are not properly established). 

Something else I noticed is that Ilé Owó has elements of a B-horror movie but it also feels like an A24 outing. Like what is termed ‘elevated’ horror, the likes of Us (2019), The Witch (2015) and Midsommar (2019). However, it fails to fully embrace either side (which would have been entertaining to see), so the experience ends up being too little (because of its restrained arthouse sensibilities) and at the same time, too much (because it’s really B-horror schlock). 

The best horror stories (especially those involving families) have a lot of drama and tension. Ilé Owó shies away from anything visceral on a character level and decides to shock the audience with all the haunting scores and showy camerawork it can get away with, serving as a distraction from the fact that there is little meat on the bones of the story. 

It works. About half the time.

Side Musings:

1. I’m still shaken by the sudden screams of the child. PS: Please do not take your kids to see Ilé Owó. Before the credits, the rating comes up: 15 was what it said. Definitely no place for a toddler. 

2. I’m excited for Dare Olaitan’s other projects. Ilé Owó is a breth of fresh air in an industry riddled with its own brand of formulaic storytelling. 

3. The scene where Busola is narrating her experience with Tunji to her friend was impressive. The dramatic irony, as well as the way the filmmaker chose to deliver the exposition, was really effective. ‘

Joseph Osamudiamen

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