One of Icelandic cinema’s most interesting hidden gems is arguably the country’s first horror film, “Blóðrautt sólarlag” (“Blood Red Sunset”). Made for national TV in 1977 by the legendary director Hrafn Gunnlaugsson, who, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, gained some clout by working for RÚV and the Reykjavík Arts Festival. It aired on TV but was never released more widely, meaning it was, in effect, lost other than some messy VHS bootlegs. Two years ago, however, the director wrangled up the original version, which can now be viewed on a white-label DVD, available to buy from Hrafn himself.
Let’s face it—Icelandic cinema is often pretty clichéd. Homegrown films seem to follow some standard of Scandinavian realism, where everything is uniformly grey and depressing. It was wonderfully refreshing to see this forgotten low-budget film—even forty years on, it achieves what many Icelandic films aspire to in terms of mood and setting.
Boogeymen on our front porch
The film tells the story of two middle-aged guys from the city who decide to go on a fishing and day-drinking trip to Djúpavík, which is still today an all-but abandoned former fishing town. In their attempt to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life, the two become increasingly isolated, paranoid and inebriated, and strange things start happening. The claustrophobic and uncomfortable vibe of the film makes it feel a bit like a ‘70s Nordic take on a Polanski film from that era. The film is not without its faults, but it ages gracefully. Without spoiling the plot, the film uses elements of ancient Icelandic folk horror, which is badass since there’s so much material in the old Sagas and myths that’s ripe for cinematic exploration.
The film’s elusive boogeyman is a play on the tradition of “fífl” (“idiots”) in the sagas, alluding to the savage treatment of mentally challenged people in the settler years, a thousand years ago. The mentally challenged would sometimes be chained up on their family’s porch, roaming the pasture like animals. It’s an example of a motif from our cultural heritage that’s so bonkers that it would do amazingly well in a horror film context. Can you imagine Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th, except with that background? Awesome!
Sadly, Icelandic filmmakers—or rather, the film institutions that handle grants—are not big on taking chances when it comes to content or direction. Anything fantastical is very rare. Hrafn confirmed this sentiment in a RÚV interview last May: “I don’t think anyone here has had the courage or knowledge to make a legitimate film [with folk horror elements]. Everyone just wants to make safe, cutesy films.”
“Blood Red Sunset” fires the imagination on what Icelandic cinema could have been in the 20th century. With many dark stories buried in the country’s past, there could be many movies for Icelandic horror nerds to watch—but there are almost none. All the recent ghost movies made here are mediocre. Had this film lain the ground for a continuing tradition in the ‘70s, might there now be an array of “Icelandsploitation” films? One can only imagine.
One possible reason for the authorities’ reticence to fund more horror films is the reception that “Blood Red Sunset” got when it first aired in 1977. According to the newspaper Dagblaðið, many people were shocked that taxpayers’ money was used to produce this film. “You wait and wait for fresh Icelandic material, and then you get slapped in the face with this,” an angry housewife wrote to the paper. “Blood Red Sunset is the most disgusting piece of trash I have ever seen.”
Not everyone agreed though—the paper also printed a positive reaction from someone named Guðmundur. “Finally we get a good Icelandic horror flick on television… it’s been widely proven that men are able to blow off steam for their various violent tendencies by watching such films.”