From Iceland — Only Mildly Scary: Horror and Icelandic Cinema

Only Mildly Scary: Horror and Icelandic Cinema

Only Mildly Scary: Horror and Icelandic Cinema

Published June 2, 2017

On the face of it, Iceland sounds like fertile ground for horror. There are many places where it’s possible to end up isolated with bad cellphone reception, and ghost stories abound. And yet, horror has not been a staple of Icelandic cinema. 1983’s‘Húsið’ (“The House”) was the first local attempt at a supernatural thriller, though future director of Viking films Hrafn Gunnlaugsson made the TV movie ‘Blóðrautt sólarlag’ (“Crimson Sunset”), about strange goings-on in an abandoned place, in 1977. The B-movie ‘Reykjavík Whale Watching Massacre’, from 2009, was more splatter than horror, whereas 2014’s ‘Grafir og bein’ (“Graves and Bones”) was a rare full-blown attempt at genre horror, with ghost children and everything. Set in the aftermath of the banking collapse, it worked well as a character drama. But the ghost scenes might have been better left out.

Director Óskar Þór Axelsson has previously made genre films palatable for Icelandic cinema. Most local attempts at gangsta have been predictably silly, but his debut ‘Svartur á leik’ (“Black’s Game”) was surprisingly effective, not just the first good Icelandic gangster film—excluding the comedy‘Sódóma Reykjavík’ aka ‘Remote Control’—but an interesting addition to the gangster genre in general.

Jogging Doctors and Brutal Deaths

In his latest film, ‘I Remember You’, he tackles horror, using much of the same cast from his earlier film. The filmmaking is adept, but the story, based on Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s book of the same name, is somewhat lacking (spoiler alerts follow). Following Baltasar Kormákur’s recent ‘The Oath’, bearded jogging doctors have become something of a trope, and here the beard is sported and the jogging done by Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson as a psychiatrist who has lost his son—a far cry from his imposing drug dealer in Óskar’s last film. The charming Ágústa Eva Erlendsdóttir is, after this and‘Borgríki 2’ (“City State 2”) reaching almost Sean Bean-esque levels of onscreen violent deaths. Perhaps it is somehow retribution for Sylvia Nótt?

Iceland has a fine tradition of mediums who put people in touch with deceased relatives, and even today many prefer these to earthlier psychiatrists when faced with tragedy. However, the lawyer to the deceased in ‘I Remember You’ verges on unintentional self-parody. Then there is the matter of the couple who decide to go into the wilderness to save their marriage and bring hubby’s mistress along to an abandoned place far away from mobile phone networks. What could possibly go wrong?

Mutilated Ghost Children Again

The actors deliver, and the building up of tension works quite well initially—as we have seen before, Óskar knows how to pace things. But as with previous Icelandic attempts at horror, there is something about meeting the monsters that just seems a little underwhelming. Perhaps the supernatural is best left to the creaking floors and opening doors and other inexplicable events that we on this island know all too well? Or perhaps a more temporal dénouement would have been more satisfactory, in the manner of Yrsa’s other works? For all the success of Icelandic crime fiction, not many of these books have been translated to the screen. Only ‘Jar City’ comes to mind, and this one here is not an obvious choice for adaptation.

But for all its faults, ‘I Remember You’ is still the best Icelandic horror film to date. One even emerges with a newfound appreciation of the genre. Making horror is not as simple as it looks. Óskar doesn’t nail this in quite the same way he nailed his explosive, near-perfect debut. But there is every sign that greater things are to come.

Ég man þig is screened in Laugarásbíó, Smárabíó, Haskólabíó and Borgarbíó.

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