Dir. and written by Filip Tegstedt
Starring Thomas Hedengran, Dylan M. Johansson, Sandra Larsson, Peter Stormare,
What we got is here is an interesting and enjoyable Swedish family drama, with a very, very light sprinkling of horror. Probably in all honesty a little too light, at least for me. The horror is pretty well done when it comes, but cumulatively there’s probably only 10 minutes spread out across the 103 minute runtime. The rest of the time, it’s a quiet and prickly family drama about a father (Thomas Hedengran, FROSTBITE) estranged from his teenage daughter (Sandra Larsson, MARIANNE) following the death of his wife. And it’s a good quiet and prickly family drama about a father estranged from his teenage daughter following the death of his wife. But that’s what you’re gonna get here, so fair warning.
Basically, Krister, the dad, is a very repressed, reserved guy --even by Swedish standards-- trying to deal with his pain over the recent death of his wife and his guilt that he has been a pretty shitty husband and father. The first thing we see in the film is him ruining his family’s vacation by secretly sneaking away to call his mistress. But he’s not all bad; he seems to be trying the best he can to be a good father to his daughter now. It’s just that he hasn’t really earned the right to be taken seriously by her, and she resents him trying to step into her life now that her mom is gone. She’s openly defying him and mostly living with her dorky pothead boyfriend “Stiff” (Dylan M. Johansson, Swedish citizen) despite her father’s obvious need for help caring for his newborn child, her baby brother.
But Krister has another problem, too. When he goes to sleep, he’s visited by a mysterious ghost, who likes to stand around grinding its horrible teeth almost touching him. This is the horror part, but boy, just like THE CANAL it seems likely there’s another explanation for why he’s experiencing this. When he’s pushed into seeing psychiatrist Peter Stormare (BAD BOYS II, BRUSIER) to help him deal with his stress, he’s gently told that this is a common phenomenon called “sleep paralysis” and that many people suffer from it, particularly when they are experiencing severe stress, hint, hint. Unhappy with that explanation, he turns to his daughter’s boyfriend, who suspects a more supernatural explanation and has some experience in this realm because he once saw an elf. When he was young.
All this raises a very important question: who the hell would ever go to Peter Stormare for psychiatric help? Absolutely guaranteed to leave you more crazy than you began, that’s been his M.O since at least the early 90s.* But also, are we really supposed to seriously entertain the idea that this man is being menaced by a literal ghost? It sure doesn’t seem like it, especially since his best source of information on the subject is the goofy pothead boyfriend. It does have some interesting discussion of Swedish folklore -- the experience of sleep paralysis has long been known as “Mare” in that country’s legend-- but come on, I’m pretty sure we’re not meant to believe this is real just because some Swedish stoner (and not even an acceptably metal one) claims an elf sighting somewhere in his past. I mean, I saw Bjork once too, but I dunno man.
Not that the ambiguity is a bad thing, exactly -- the movie treats the haunting episodes very seriously, and has a nicely creepy aesthetic for them (the tooth-grinding noise is genuinely a bit rattling, expect to hear it ripped off in an American movie soon). You certainly believe Krister is traumatized by the experience, but from our perspective his story is more tragic than terrifying -- he’s a flawed guy grappling with his guilt and subconsciously projecting this turmoil into his dreams. There’s actually something kind of sweet and vulnerable about this closed-off, macho guy feeling so persecuted and cornered that he’s turned to some moron teenager in a desperate attempt to free himself. Yes, he looks ridiculous chanting and throwing seeds around to dispel the evil spirit, but it’s sort of sad, too. He’s so desperate that he’ll submit to the indignity of talking about elves and fairies, but he still can’t bring himself to look inward for an answer -- the stuff inside is just too painful.
|No, no, happy trees!|
So it’s an interesting and effective character piece, but as a horror movie it leaves a little to be desired. I think writer/director Filip Tegstedt is serious about making a real horror film --he personally financed the film by liquidating his assets and taking loans, in part as a protest to the Swedish Film Institute’s perceived failure to support the genre -- but unfortunately I think this particular scenario doesn’t make for a very effectively structured horror movie. Horror is all about escalation; it’s about drawing the noose ever tighter, forcing the characters into more and more desperate and frightening situations. This one starts off not very horrific, and then actually gets less horrific as it goes along, as we learn more about who this guy is and why he’s probably experiencing these things. An abrupt and mostly unsatisfying ending doesn’t help things -- and trying to shoehorn in one last scare to this mostly dramatic tale only serves to disrupt the genuine pathos that has been building with the family conflict. You always gotta appreciate an attempt at a horror film with real dramatic weight, but this one might have been wiser either focusing more on the scary stuff or just dropping it altogether and contenting itself with being a solid relationship drama.
But even though there’s plenty to criticize here, there’s a lot to like, too. The cast is uniformly strong -- both father, daughter, and boyfriend are smartly cast and expertly craft complex characters who feel quite at home in the movie’s universe. There’s a subtle streak of deadpan Swedish humor anchoring the slightly exaggerated tragedy to an earthy, likeable tone that keeps things from getting too grim and self-serious. And the incorporation of Swedish folklore and mythology into the horror genre gives it something fresh and interesting, even if its anthropological tone is maybe a bit at odds with the movie’s apparent desire to terrify (it also makes it an interesting comparison to this year's other interesting-but-too-uneventful Scandinavian "horror" film, THALE). So It’s not a total waste of time by any means. But I wish it were as sure-footed with its genre conceits as it is with everything else. Then we might really have something here.
*OK, I think he’s pretty normal in his tiny role as “young man” in FANNY AND ALEXANDER. But that movie is 312 minutes long and stars the entire population of Sweden at the time, so not a huge surprise that he didn’t get a chance to do his Peter Stormare thing quite as hard as he would in later films.
|This is pretty borderline, but it just didn't feel right to give it the same three thumbs I've been giving to uninspired genre junk. It has some strengths, just not horror. Call it B-.|