Stubborn skepticism toward the supernatural in modern life clashes with centuries-old tradition and deep-rooted superstitions in the harrowing feature Bloodlands (Australia/Albania, 2017). Writer/director Steven Kastrissios has crafted the first Albanian horror film, and his work is a bleak, harrowing offering that is one of this reviewer’s absolute favorite fear-fare movies of this year.

Kastrissios takes a lean, minimalist approach to Bloodlands, which fits perfectly with the struggling, small community in which it is partially set. Stray dogs and filthy, poor hill folk both roam the streets in search of food, with other characters barely eking out a living. The film fairly drips both despair and dread.

Skender (Gezim Rudi) is a butcher whose shop is possibly mere weeks away from closing. He is vocally skeptical about his wife Shpresa’s (Suela Bako) superstitious beliefs, which she states have some grounding in Skender’s forebears. His shop is not the only thing he fears losing; his daughter Iliriana (Alesia Xhemalaj) has announced her intention, against his wishes, of moving to Italy, and his son Artan (Emiljano Palali) dreams of becoming a photographer.

Skender’s hard-headedness already has the family on tenterhooks, but when he catches young people from the nearby hills trying to take food from his business’s garbage can, matters escalate. A blood feud ensues, with its rules based in the ancient Albanian Kanun of Lek, a traditional set of Albanian laws that dictate societal rules ranging from marriage to sanctioned murder.

Shpresa is terrified at what her husband has begun because of her belief in the Shtriga (Ilire Vinca), a supposed witch. Though Skender scoffs at her, he himself has recently seen something difficult to explain: a man who died in a blood feud long ago, walking the town’s streets. Artan tries to trace down information about this man with the help of his crush, local doctor’s daughter Lorena (Enxhi Cuku).

Sensitive viewers may wish to be warned that Bloodlands includes scenes of real sheep being killed and cut apart at a slaughter house. This butchery foreshadows the fate of some of the film’s characters, and special effects makeup artist Reti Mehmeti provides some gruesome work. The film doesn’t rely on graphic imagery, however, as its horror-film strengths lie in its depiction of the savage, occult hill clan. Smeared with dirt in everyday life and covered in mud for their esoteric rituals, these characters are grounded to the earth while belonging to the otherworldly.

Kastrissios perfectly balances dramatic tensions within a fractured family and mystical elements of a feral band of outsiders. These two factions cannot coexist, especially given some revelations made during the third act, and Kastrissios paces things with a strong sense for building suspense. He is greatly aided by a terrific cast portraying believable characters, with the members of Skender’s family each possessing either unwanted fears or strengths held in check, with both feelings held tautly just below the surface.

Bloodlands finds beauty in its bleakness, thanks to Leander Ljarja’s cinematography and the local color of Tirana, Albania. Veteran sound designer Phil Judd and his staff bring the streets and forest to vivid aural life.

Bloodlands is a unique piece of cinema. It is exciting to discover singular horror films from foreign countries, and with this movie being the first of its kind from Albania, the surprises and pleasures within are all the more gratifying.

Bloodlands screened at the A Night of Horror and Fantastic Planet film festivals, held November 29–December 3 in Sydney, Australia.