Fright Club: Norse/Scandinavian Horror

It’s been too long since we took a trip around the world to see how certain corners view horror. Today we head to the cluster of chilly Norse and Scandinavian countries to seek trolls, wolves, Nazi zombies – and to steer clear of household tools, if possible.

5. Trollhunter (2010) (Norway)

All ancient cultures generated fairy tales. They passed on stories that wrapped the virtues most respected at the time inside common dangers to tell tales of heroism and humor. Norway’s fairy tales all involve trolls. Indeed, their entire national culture seems weirdly identified with trolls. Why is that? Well, writer/director Andre Ovredal’s Trollhunter suggests that maybe it’s because trolls are a real problem up there.

Ovredal’s approach is wry and silly – adjectives that rarely hang out together, but maybe we haven’t seen enough of Norway’s cinematic output. The FX are sometimes wonderful, and especially effective given the otherwise verite, documentary style. Ovredal makes droll use of both approaches.

Trollhunter is definitely more comedy than horror, as at no time does the film actually seek to scare you. It’s a wild ride into a foreign culture, though, and it makes you think twice about the Norway section of Epcot, I’ll tell you what.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vy2nAOdBUlw

4. Dead Snow (2009) (Norway)

Nazi zombies, everybody! Hell yes!

Like its portly nerd character Erlend, Dead Snow loves horror movies. A self-referential “cabin in the woods” flick, Dead Snow follows a handsome, mixed-gender group of college students as they head to a remote cabin for Spring Break. A creepy old dude warns them off with a tale of local evil. They mock and ignore him at their peril.

But co-writer/director/Scandinavian Tommy Wirkola doesn’t just obey these time-honored horror film rules, he draws your attention to them. His film embraces our prior knowledge of the path we’re taking to mine for comedy, but doesn’t give up on the scares. Wirkola’s artful imagination generates plenty of startles, and gore by the gallon.

Spectacular location shooting, exquisite cinematography, effective sound editing and a killer soundtrack combine to elevate the film above its clever script and solid acting. Take, for example, the gorgeous image of Norwegian peace – a tent, lit from within, sits like a jewel nestled in the quiet of a snowy mountainside. The image glistens with pristine outdoorsy beauty – until it … doesn’t.

3. Antichrist (2009) (Denmark)

Saturated in the cinematic equivalent of melancholy poetry, punctuated with truly, deeply shocking moments of violence and brutality, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist takes the cabin-in-the-woods horror to brand new places, sharing his auteur cred with the horror genre.

A nameless couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) is wracked with grief after the death of their young son. They retreat to their remote cabin, hoping to speed the healing process. Things do not go well.

Dafoe and Gainsbourg give terrific, courageous performances. They are the only two actors onscreen for 99 percent of the film, and they do not shrink from the challenge. These are deeply flawed characters, and the performances are haunting.

Von Trier’s film is so gorgeous to see and so punishing to watch, the result is an amazing if bruising experience. His tone ranges from somber to insane, and one or two of the more vivid weirdisms feel terribly out of place. But there is no forgetting Antichrist, hard as you may try.

2. Hour of the Wolf (1968) (Sweden)

An atmospheric masterpiece, Ingmar Bergman’s meditation on artistic conflict and regret is a haunting experience.

Bergman favorites Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman are a married couple spending time on an isolated, windswept island. Ullman’s Alma is pregnant, and her relationship with her husband becomes strained as his time and attention become more and more consumed by visions, or demons – or maybe they’re just party people.

Von Sydow’s character is tempted with the decadence missing from the wholesome life that may be dissatisfying to him. But it’s Ullman, whose performance spills over with longing, that amplifies the heartbreak and mourning that color the entire film.

Shot in incandescent black and white, with Bergman’s characteristic eye for light and shadow, Hour of the Wolf is a glorious, hypnotic nightmare.

1. Let The Right One In (2008) (Sweden)

In 2008, Sweden’s Let the Right One In emerged as an original, stylish thriller – and the best vampire flick in years. A spooky coming of age tale populated by outcasts in the bleakest environment, the film breaks hearts and bleeds victims in equal measure. Kare Hedebrant‘s Oskar, with his blond Prince Valiant haircut, falls innocently for the odd new girl (an outstanding Lina Leandersson) in his shabby apartment complex. Reluctantly, she returns his admiration, and a sweet and bloody romance buds.

As sudden acts of violence mar the snowy landscape, Oskar and Ali grow closer, providing each other a comfort no one else can. The film offers an ominous sense of dread, bleak isolation and brazen androgyny – as well as the best swimming pool scene perhaps ever. Intriguingly, though both children tend toward violence – murder, even – you never feel anything but empathy for them. The film is moving, bloody, lovely and terrifying in equal measure.

Fright Club: Best Found Footage Horror Movies

It is the most tired and tiresome of all horror film gimmicks, but are there worthwhile found footage movies to be celebrated? Or are they all simply the result of an inexpensive narrative device that allows for sloppy filmmaking and weak production values? Well, we did the research and found that there are many worthwhile offerings in this field. Yes, the bad outnumber the good 10 – 1, but there are good ones. Here are our five (OK – 6!) favorites.

Listen to the whole podcast HERE.

6. Trollhunter (2010)

All ancient cultures generated fairy tales. They passed on stories that wrapped the virtues most respected at the time inside common dangers to tell tales of heroism and humor. Norway’s fairy tales all involve trolls. Indeed, their entire national culture seems weirdly identified with trolls. Why is that? Well, writer/director Andre Ovredal’s Trollhunter suggests that maybe it’s because trolls are a real problem up there.

Ovredal’s approach is wry and silly – adjectives that rarely hang out together, but maybe we haven’t seen enough of Norway’s cinematic output. The FX are sometimes wonderful, and especially effective given the otherwise verite, documentary style. Ovredal makes droll use of both approaches.

Trollhunter is definitely more comedy than horror, as at no time does the film actually seek to scare you. It’s a wild ride into a foreign culture, though, and it makes you think twice about the Norway section of Epcot, I’ll tell you what.

5. Paranormal Activity (2007)

Paranormal Activity, or The Little Ghost Story That Could, opened on a handful of screens in just a few cities around the country for midnight weekend shows only. All screenings promptly sold out. Powerful word-of-mouth and an aggressive marketing campaign propelled the modest flick into multiplexes worldwide. Why the hubbub? Well, for those patient enough to let it seep in – for those who do not require a jump, a slash, or a violent act in every fifth frame – Paranormal Activity is an effective, creepy little production.

A classic ghost story, the film evolves Blair Witch-style, as a couple pestered by something spectral begin cataloguing incidents with a night vision camera. The entire film consists solely of the video footage, tracking about three weeks’ worth of rising tension, most of it captured in the couple’s bedroom while they sleep.

The couple (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat) is annoyingly believable in their pensions for doing the wrong thing simply to cater to each other’s insecurities. This, and the simplicity in the filmmaking – limited effects, incredibly limited cast and sets, minimal backstory – create an unnerving air of authenticity. The cam-corder timestamp rolls quickly forward, providing shorthand imaging of the couple sleeping, then slows to real time tracking just as something is about to happen. This repetitive gimmick proves so succinct and effective that dread begins to build while still fast forwarding. By the time the clock slows, half the audience is holding its breath.

4. The Last Horror Movie (2003)

A clever concept handled very craftily, The Last Horror Movie is found footage in that we, the audience, have found it recorded over the VHS tape we are apparently watching. What serial killer Max (a top notch Kevin Howarth) has done, you see, is made a documentary of his ghastly habits and shared them with an audience that’s shown, by virtue of the movie it intended to rent just now, its predeliction for someting grisly.

There’s a lot of “yes, I’m a bad person, but aren’t you, too” posturing going on, and while it is an idea to chew on, it nearly outlives its welcome by the time Max applies his theory to concrete action. It’s an idea explored masterfully by Michael Haneke in 1997 (and again, ten years later) with Funny Games, and by comparison, The Last Horror Movie feels a bit superficial. (Not a huge criticism – few could withstand a comparison to Michael Haneke.)

But director Julian Richards deserves immense credit for subverting expectations throughout the film. Just when we assume we’re seeing a predator anticipating the pounce – just when we’re perhaps feeling eager to see someone victimized – the film makes a hard right turn. In doing this, Richards not only manages to keep the entire film feeling fresh and unpredictable, but he enlightens us to the ugliness of our own horror movie fascinations.

3. Man Bites Dog (1992)

Oh, Belgium. How we do love your horror output. In a bit of meta-filmmaking, Man Bites Dog is a pseudo-documentary made on a shoestring budget by struggling, young filmmakers. It is about a documentary being made on a shoestring budget by struggling, young filmmakers. The subject of the documentary is the charismatic Ben – serial killer, narcissist, poet, racist, architecture enthusiast, misogynist, bird lover.

There’s more than what appears on the surface of this cynical, black comedy. The film crew starts out as dispassionate observers of Ben’s crimes – which is certainly morally questionable to begin with. Eventually their commitment to the project, fear of retaliation, bloodlust, or sense of camaraderie pushes them toward aiding Ben, and then finally, to committing heinous crimes themselves.

It’s a bitter view of their chosen industry, and – much like The Last Horror Movie – a bit of a condemnation of the viewer as well. The fact that much of the decidedly grisly content is played for laughter makes it that much more unsettling.

2. [REC] (2007)

[Rec] shares one cameraman’s footage of the night he and a reporter tagged along with a local fire department. The small news crew and two firefighters respond to a call from an urban apartment building. An elderly woman, locked inside her flat, has been screaming. Two officers are already on the scene. Bad, bad things will happen.

Just about the time the first responders realize they’re screwed, the building is completely sealed off from the outside by government forces. Power to the building is cut, leaving everyone without cell reception, cable, and finally, light. Suddenly we’re trapped inside the building with about fifteen people, some of them ill, some of them bleeding, some of them biting.

Filmmakers Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza make excellent use of their found footage approach, first by way of the news report, then because of the need to use the camera to see once power’s been cut. They play the claustrophobic nature of the quarantine to excellent effect, creating a kind of funhouse of horror that refuses to let you relax. The American reboot Quarantine is another excellent choice, but our vote has to go with the original.

1. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

BW is, of course, the now famous instigator of the found footage movement. Yes, Cannibal Holocaust was the first film to use the found footage conceit, but a) it sucked, and b) it didn’t show the audience this footage exclusively. Cannibal Holocaust built a narrative around the film canisters, and then looked at them. One of several truly genius ideas behind Blair Witch is that the filmmakers made the audience believe that the film they were watching was nothing more than the unearthed footage left behind by three disappeared young people.

Between the novelty of the found footage approach and the also novel use of viral marketing, the film drew a huge audience of people who believed they were seeing a snuff film. Nice.

And those two cutting edge techniques buoyed this minimalistic, naturalistic home movie about three bickering buddies who venture into the Maryland woods to document the urban legend of The Blair Witch. Twig dolls, late night noises, jumpy cameras, unknown actors, and not much else blended into an honestly frightening flick that played upon primal fears.

Fright Club: Doc-Style Horror

The year’s first great comedy and first decent horror film – What We Do in the Shadows – releases wide this weekend. Hooray! We loved it so, and wanted to celebrate it as well as all our other favorite documentary-style horror films. There are so many greats to choose from – the Norwegian lunacy of TrollHunter? The meta-slasher Behind the Mask? Well, it took some doing, but we landed on our favorite documentary-styled horror films. Enjoy!

What We Do in the Shadows (2015)

In the weeks leading up to the Unholy Masquerade – a celebration for Wellington, New Zealand’s surprisingly numerous undead population – a documentary crew begins following four vampire flatmates. Besides regular flatmate spats about who is and is not doing their share of dishes and laying down towels before ruining an antique fainting couch with blood stains, we witness some of the modern tribulations of the vampire. The filmmakers know how to mine the absurd just as well as they handle the hum drum minutia. The balance generates easily the best mock doc since Christopher Guest. It’s also the first great comedy of 2015.

Vampires (2010)

About 5 years ago, Belgiain filmmaker Vincent Lanoo made his own (blandly titled) mock-doc about vampires. Far darker and more morbid than Shadows (the first two film crews were eaten before they could complete the documentary; the final film is dedicated to the memory of the third crew), Lanoo’s film is still insightful and very funny.

The crew moves in with a vampire family with two undisciplined teens. The house also contains the couple who live in their basement (vampires can’t own a home until they have – make – children), and Meat (the name they’ve given the woman they keep in their kitchen). There’s also a coop out back for the illegal immigrants the cops drop off on Mondays. Wickedly hilarious.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqS_6nlctG8

American Zombie (2007)

American Zombie begins as an insightful satire on the modern documentary, pitting objective artist against gonzo filmmaker. Director Grace Lee, playing herself, agrees to co-direct a documentary on the Los Angeles area’s growing undead population with her zealous, craftless friend John (John Solomon). They interview experts – doctors, historians, social workers – and choose a handful of zombies as subjects. Lee approaches the film as the documentation of a misunderstood community; her co-director John is looking for something a little more lurid.

American Zombie is observant and often very funny. (An evangelist hoping to serve this untapped market remarks to the camera, “Jesus loves zombies. Jesus was the original zombie.” Nice!) As the movie progresses you find yourself lulled by Lee’s low-key, funny take on the living dead. And then, slowly but surely, she turns her film into a surprisingly creepy little horror flick.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Not every faux-documentary in horror is a comedy. BW is, of course, the now famous instigator of the found footage movement. (Yes, we’ve seen Cannibal Holocaust.) Between the novelty of the found footage approach and the also novel use of viral marketing, the film drew a huge audience of people who believed they were basically seeing a snuff film. Nice.

And those two cutting edge techniques buoyed this minimalistic, naturalistic home movie about three bickering buddies who venture into the Maryland woods to document the urban legend of The Blair Witch. Twig dolls, late night noises, jumpy cameras, unknown actors and not much else blended into an honestly frightening flick that played upon the nightmares some of us have had since childhood.

The Last Exorcism (2010)

Out to expose the fraudulent exorcisms perpetrated by evangelical ministers like himself all over the South, Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) teams up with a documentarian and her cameraman. Together they set out to capture his final exorcism – chosen at random from his PO Box – before he hangs up his bible. Things don’t go as planned.

Fabian exploits every possibility he finds in the character of a disenchanted preacher. He’s absolutely terrific, and is aided by an effectively shaken and/or creepy supporting cast working with a script that explores any number of unseemly Southern Gothic possibilities before deciding what kind of devil is plaguing poor Nell (Ashley Bell). Thanks largely to the commitment of the cast and the effortlessly eerie backdrop of backwoods Louisiana, The Last Exorcism entertains throughout.