The popular conception of Scandinavia, at least for those of us who have never been there, is of a bleak land of everlasting twilight, populated by gloomy depressives whose attempts at rational tolerance founder in alcohol, chaos and death. It’s a simplistic view, though seemingly reinforced by the avalanche of Scandi-crime fiction and cop shows eagerly devoured by the English-speaking public.
With this sort of reputation, you wonder why Scandinavia has not produced more horror movies. Perhaps it’s because so much Scandi-crime is already horrifically grim, and the national tendency towards introspection has resulted in blurred boundaries, not just between physical, social and psychological horror, but between genres as well. The first well-known Scandinavian horror movie, Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 Häxan (aka Witchcraft Through the Ages), is part historical documentary, part study of the psychology of superstition, though its depictions of torture and sexual perversion got it banned or heavily censored in many countries.
Or perhaps it’s because some of Scandinavia’s most internationally feted auteurs, while not thought of as horror directors, have already embraced elements of horror in their work. Lest we forget, Wes Craven’s notorious rape-revenge movie Last House on the Left (1972) was a reworking of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. The horror in Bergman’s films is not just psychological (though there is that); the eerie climax of The Magician would do credit to any genuine horror movie, Persona and Through a Glass Darkly are frankly terrifying, while the troubled artist in Hour of the Wolf is haunted by his visits to a Gothic castle populated by vampire-like demons, one of whom peels off her own face at the dinner table, extracts one of her eyeballs, and plops into her wine-glass as though it were a cocktail olive.
Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr, based on stories by Sheridan LeFanu, is one of the most critically-acclaimed vampire films ever made; his Day of Wrath and The Passion of Joan of Arc both feature witch-burning. (“Whenever Scandinavian cinema has five minutes to fill, it burns a witch,” Dilys Powell wrote in her review of The Seventh Seal.) Lars von Trier’s Antichrist was out-and-out horror, though perhaps not as much fun as The Kingdom, his 1994 Danish TV mini-series about a haunted hospital, a sort of ER meets The Fall of the House of Usher in which the horrors are tempered by an exquisitely deadpan humour.
The humour in Headhunter and Jackpot, gory psychothrillers based on Jo Nesbø’s novels, is so similarly deadpan you might almost be forgiven for not realising they’re comedies, but young Scandinavian film-makers are as capable of grossout splatstick as their American peers. Tommy Wirkola, Norwegian director of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, first made his name with the Nazi zombie gore-fest Dead Snow, while in Anders Banke’s Frostbitten a vampire ends up “staked” on the pointed hat of a garden gnome. Elsewhere, with the entirely humour-free Manhunt, Patrik Syversen proves himself the equal of his French and American confreres in the gruelling-torture-by-backwoods-hillbilly subgenre.
Recurring motifs of Scandinavian horror are snow (not so much an artistic choice, of course, as a fact of life, though it must play merry hell with continuity), establishment cover-ups (the oil-bleeding zombies of Dark Souls are a result of environmental contamination), sleep disorders in which dreams merge with reality (Sleepwalker and Marianne follow in the somnambulist footsteps of Insomnia, an all-white noir remade in English by Christopher Nolan) and unusual attention to characterisation that’s evident even in the Norwegian slasher franchise Cold Prey.
One of the most interesting developments is the mining of local mythology. “The Norwegians know all about witches,” wrote Roald Dahl, “for Norway, with its black forests and icy mountains, is where the first witches came from.”
But not just witches – André Øvredal scored a break-out hit with Trollhunter, in which one of Norway’s most famous paranormal creatures gets the found footage treatment, while there have been less successful but nevertheless promising forways into the succubus-like “mare” (Marianne) and the dangerously seductive “huldra” (Thale), a nymph whose supernatural power seems to involve being naked. Lurid pagan myths and the bloody Viking past are never far away.
Not for nothing is Scandinavia’s most famous painting The Scream.
This article was first posted on the Telegraph website in June 2013. This version has been lightly edited.
Very interesting post, thanks for writing it!
You’re welcome. Thanks for your comment.
It was a pleasure to read. I’ve seen Frostbiten but none of the others. I’m going to rectify that!
Trollhunter is great. The Dead Snow films are fun – maybe a bit too much so. Von Trier’s The Kingdom (not to be confused with the American remake) is one of my favourite TV series of all time. Actually, I might embed the intro & opening credits on the blog, as they are superb: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VijlYkLFdAk
Thanks! I’m at work at the moment but wil watch the video later 🙂
Trollhunter was quite a big movie wasn’t it? I’m sure I’ve heard of it.
I didn’t even realise Von Trier did TV shows……I have a lot to learn!
Thanks very much.
I really loved Trollhunter. Not sure about the Dead Snow films…
The Dead Snow films are quite silly. I think maybe they’re best watched late at night, with a lively audience.
Great post, but did you leave out the other most critically acclaimed vampire film on purpose Anne? Let The Right One In (or am i being fang blind?)
Ah yes, you’re right, that does look odd. Reason is the piece was originally written to tie in with the stage production of Let the Right One In, which was reviewed separately. But I should probably add a line or two, either to include it or explain its absence.
Have you read the novel? its also excellent, the author also wrote the screenplay and was brutal cutting out whole plot lines. A great adaptation
Yes, and I wrote a book about the film. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Let-Right-One-Devils-Advocates/dp/1906733503/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8
Figured it was something like that 😉
It is indeed a fantastic adaptation. All the more amazing since he was adapting his own novel. How clear-sighted must you be in order to know what is or isn’t going to work like that?
I had a go at adapting Suckers in the 1990s and it was REALLY difficult wrapping my head around something I was so close to. I was so determined not to be faithful to the novel that I think I went too far in the other direction and cut out material I ought to have kept.
It’s interesting, I haven’t read Gone Girl that seems like another example of an author being quite vicious with their own work. Might be a blog in this topic 😉
Absolutely, though I’m sure Fincher was a great help in that department.
Here’s a piece I once did for the Independent about the opposite process – writing a novelisation: https://multiglom.com/2012/03/13/how-to-write-a-novelisation/
I was disappointed that the US remake of LTROI cleaved so close to the Swedish film, because there was another quite different adaptation that could have been done using the stuff that was cut from the novel. The Renfield-a-like serial killer plotline was really interesting I thought.
Totally agree. The bits where Reeves took off on his own were the most effective – fantastic murder scene in a car, IIRC. He should have ditched the original film completely.
Excellent article! Didn’t like Thale much but Troll Hunter is one of my Faves! Of course, Haxan is one of the great early films depicting witches, the devil and Hell and i’ve had the dvd for many years. I would like to see Frost Bitten, looks interesting. 🙂
Thank you for your kind words.
I don’t think Thale really succeeded, but I liked the fact that they were exploring local mythology.
Frostbitten is sloppy, but good fun.