Thursday, October 22, 2020

Capsule Reviews - Nordic Horror

Five movies from Europe’s northern regions that will get your pulse pounding!

1. Antichrist (2009)

So what kind of movie is director Lars von Trier’s Antichrist? Well, to answer that question, let’s jump forward to the film’s end credits, specifically those relating to the “research assistants”. Each of von Trier’s researchers was apparently given a specific subject to explore, and among them are Heidi Laura, who researched misogyny; Thomas Christensen and Astra Wellejus, who delved into mythology and evil; Trine Breum studied horror films; Poel Lubicke explored the subject of Theology; and Simo Koppe had the pleasure of researching anxiety. So based on that credit grouping alone, you can guess that Antichrist is going to be a bleak, emotional film, which is exactly what von Trier delivers. Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are brilliant as the grieving couple who, to deal with a tragic loss, head into the woods, hoping the isolation of their cabin retreat will help them mend their failing marriage. But what they encounter instead might just destroy them forever. There’s a genuine chemistry between Dafoe and Gainsbourg, which makes where the story ultimately goes all the more troubling, and the black & white photography, coupled with von Trier’s use of slow motion, is breathtaking (even when what we’re seeing is so very disturbing). Antichrist is a dark, chilling movie about the nature of loss and grief, a beautiful motion picture that will shake you to your core. And I’ll never look at a piece of firewood in quite the same way again!
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

2. Day of Wrath (1943)

Though more an historical drama than a horror film, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath casts a spotlight on 17th century witch hunts, a subject most genre fans will likely find appealing. Anna (Lisbeth Movin) is the wife of local pastor Absalom Pedersson (Thorkild Roose), the lone priest in their tiny village. Anna’s mother was once accused of witchcraft, and as a reward for saving her mother’s life, Anna married Absalom (Absalom refused to condemn the old girl for witchcraft). Trouble arises, however, when Martin (Preben Lerdorff), Absalom’s adult son from a previous marriage, returns from abroad. The moment they meet, Anna and Martin are attracted to one another, and soon after they begin an affair. But is it love or something more sinister that has drawn them together? Dreyer, who also directed my all-time favorite silent movie The Passion of Joan of Arc, establishes an ominous tone right at the outset of Day of Wrath, which he then maintains for much of its running time. In addition, the character of Anna remains an enigma throughout; seemingly naïve and innocent as the film commences, she grows more manipulative, more daring, once Martin enters the picture, and because of this we’re never quite sure what’s motivating her. Does Anna love Martin, or is it witchcraft that caused this attraction? It’s here that Day of Wrath sets itself apart from movies like The Witchfinder General, Mark of the Devil and Haxan, films that clearly depict the witch hunters themselves - and not the so-called witches - as the true force of evil. In Day of Wrath, Dreyer looks at it from both sides, and we, the audience, are left to make our own judgments about what’s really happening. Like The Passion of Joan of Arc, Day of Wrath is a classic, and is not to be missed.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

3. Hour of the Wolf (1968)

Ingmar Bergman often delved into dark subject matter; his The Virgin Spring was remade by Wes Craven as The Last House on the Left, and his dramas occasionally crossed the line into horror-esque territory (Even Fanny and Alexander featured a handful of supernatural sequences). With Hour of the Wolf, the legendary director dives headfirst into full-blown horror, and true to form it’s psychological in nature. Artist Johan Borg (Max Von Sydow) and his pregnant wife Alma (Liv Ullmann) live on a small island. Johan has been experiencing terrifying visions as of late, but it isn’t until he meets some of the island’s other residents, including Baron Von Merkens (Erland Josephson), that he begins to comprehend the true nature of the horrors that haunt him night after night. The jarring camera movements and sudden cuts Bergman employs throughout Hour of the Wolf are unlike anything I’ve seen from him before (all of which enhance the horrific story he’s telling), and the director’s longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist once again proves he’s a master of black & white, with startlingly beautiful shots and sequences. Add to this the superb performances by Bergman regulars Von Sydow, Ullmann, and Josephson and you have a must-see motion picture (though to be fair, I have yet to watch a Bergman film that wasn’t one).
Rating: 10 out of 10

4. Marianne (2011)

The most interesting aspect of director Filip Tegstedt’s 2011 film Marianne is its lead character, Krister (Thomas Hedengran), a teacher who, since the tragic death of his wife, has been having terrible nightmares, which may be the source of an evil entity that’s tormenting him as he sleeps. Played quite well by Hedengren, we sympathize with Krister through much of Marianne; on the surface, he seems like a nice guy. But as revealed in the opening sequence ( a flashback of 10 years or so), he’s also a bit of a heel; he cheated on his wife, and for a time left her and their young daughter Sandra, who, now that she’s a teenager (played by Sandra Larsson), resents the hell out of him. Krister did eventually return to his family, and in so doing spurned yet another longtime lover, the titular Marianne (Viktoria Satter)! So even as we root for Krister to reconcile with Sandra, we understand that he may very well deserve the terrors that the ghostly presence brings his way each and every night. The mystery of who or what this ghost is - and why it has been visiting Krister - is easily figured out well before the final reveal. Yet I’d still recommend you check out Marianne; it’s a slow burn that sometimes favors family drama over horror, but with enough creepy moments to keep you on your toes.
Rating: 8 out of 10

5. Thelma (2017)

Thelma (Eili Harboe), a repressed young woman who spent her entire life under the watchful eye of an ultra-religious father (Henrik Rafaelsen), moves to Oslo to attend University, and there befriends Anja (Kaya Wilkins), a fellow student. As their friendship grows, Thelma develops deeper feelings for Anja, an attraction that may account for the sudden reemergence of Thelma’s epileptic siezures, a childhood condition she thought was under control. But is this newfound love the true cause of Thelma’s physical ailment, or is it all in her mind? Despite its more horrific elements, 2017’s Thelma is a beautiful motion picture; kudos to director Joachim Trier and cinematographer Jakob Ihre, who employ numerous long shots throughout, perfectly establishing the sense of isolation that plagues their lead character through much of the movie. In addition, Thelma features a positively chilling opening sequence - set sometime in the past - where Thelma, as a child, accompanied her father on a hunt (this scene changes our perception of Thelma’s relationship with her dad, essentially clueing the audience in on something that even Thelma herself doesn’t know). Eili Harboe is amazing in the title role, portraying a shy, demure girl who slowly comes out of her social shell, yet feels nothing but guilt for doing so, all the while never realizing the awesome power she possesses. Thelma is not a fast-paced movie by any stretch, but is so incredibly engrossing, and told with such skill, that I was completely immersed in it.
Rating: 9 out of 10

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