Published November 6, 2015
Despite possessing a desolate landscape, long winters, and prominent bodysnatcher demographic (sorry, Alþingi), Iceland is not really a landmark when it comes to horror movies—even though it certainly seems like the kind of place that should be. Thanks to a burgeoning national cinema, though, the country might just be about to smack intestines-first straight into the horror buff’s world map. Enter ‘Mara’ (“Mare”), a new, independent Icelandic horror film that’s looking to make waves in the world’s oceans of blood.
We roll up the gravel path, wheels kicking up scree into the fading summer air. The sun is working its way west. Dusk has started to gnaw at the top of the misty, rolling hills of the valley.
A faint, blood-orange smog creeps across the sky. You roll down the window, but close it quickly again, the dust hot in your nose and eyes. Across the way, a salmon lake stands, near-drained in parts, the faint silhouettes of fishermen standing solitary in the wash.
The guesthouse, our last refuge of warmth and supplies, fades into the shadows of the northern foothills—its security light a star, standing to attention in the small solar system of those dotted across the rest of the valley.
There are no lights here, no path to follow. Once night falls upon this place—a sweet, velvet darkness—all bets are off. The cliffs grow up around you like the walls of an ancient fort. The moon glares from the south upon the mouth of the valley—your one way in, your one way out.
The house, a particularly Evil Dead number, rolls into view. Creaking, rusty orange iron is punctuated by a kitchen window swinging in the wind, smacking into its dark, wooden frame. A large lighting rig and curtain cling to a side window in the growing tumult.
The nearest main road is a 2.5km hike away. Water is already in short supply. Did I forget anything…? Two crew members fiddle with camera rails and filters. A dog howls in the distance.
We have arrived.
“A HORROR FILM IS REALLY JUST ABOUT FUCKING WITH PEOPLE.”
When I recount my last horror film experience to Elvar Gunnarsson, the director, writer, and cinematographer of ‘Mara’, he laughs. Thanks to his near-encyclopaedic knowledge of the genre, he immediately knows which film I’m talking about. “Oh yeah, [Peter Jackson’s] ‘Braindead’,” he grins. “The lawnmower, right?” He seems to know a suspicious amount of horror trivia for a horror director, writer, and cinematographer. I pursue this.
“I have never directed a horror movie before,” Elvar admits, leaning back into a large wingback armchair. Dry ice from the previous scene permeates the air. “But when I was growing up, me and my sister weren’t allowed to watch Disney films. We weren’t allowed to watch fairytales with a happy ending. That was not allowed. So having not experienced all these fairytales and normal things that kids usually grow up with, I watched a lot of horror. That, and a lot of Hitchcock. These films talked to me as if they were talking to a kid, because I was a kid when I saw them.”
‘Mara’ tells the story of an earnest young couple who have returned to Iceland from the US in order to live the American dream and open an Airbnb hostel in The Beautiful Icelandic Countryside. Upon their arrival, however, things quickly take a turn for the fucked-up. After the male lead, Pétur (Gunnar Kristinsson) discovers a mysterious hole in the cellar, his wife Mira (Vivian Ólafsdóttir, in her feature-length debut) is haunted by devastating night terrors. One morning, she wakes up pregnant with what seems to be an extremely rapidly growing baby—or so it would seem. That’s where the fun begins.
It’s hardly Disney, but the story might have more in common with those fables than you’d expect from a horror film. As Elvar argues, “I think ‘Mara’ really is a story about growing up and becoming an adult—accepting that you have to take some kind of responsibility, and act according to those responsibilities,” Elvar explains. “Even though it’s set up as a horror movie, with devilish creatures and an Alien-like egg, I think that’s really what’s at the core of the story. While these elements would normally make more of a B-movie, we’re trying to make something slick.”
Slick? Like, with blood?
“It’s kind of like watching one of [David] Cronenberg’s 80s movies. His films were so absurd, but so slick, you know?” Elvar exclaims, enthusiastically. “For the average viewer, you’d just kind of have to believe what you were seeing because it was so slick and well-made. Like, take ‘Scanners’. Most of the film is quite normal—I mean, apart from the exploding head and people catching fire for no reason and stuff like that—but it’s actually telling quite a normal story in quite a normal way.
“That’s kind of what we’re trying to do. If you were to read through the script, it would probably read like that sort of 80s movie, but thanks to the freedom the genre gives you, the film has a very definite, stylised, distinctive look—reminiscent, in a way, of the old 50s studio films. We’re trying to take those two genres, both very dear to my heart, and combine them to create something new. We’re trying to take something that’s completely out there and tell a story about it in a normal, stylised way—in a way that you can really connect with.
“Of course,” he smiles. “I think it will be horrifying in the end. I just really don’t like these horror films that treat the horror aspects as if they’re the only thing in the film.”
WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO PETER JACKSON?
Iceland is not particularly well-known for its horror cinema. It’s only in the last decade that Icelandic cinema has really taken off at all in terms of possessing its own unique aesthetic or modus operandi. It’s only even more recently that th country has become a popular shooting location for productions the world over, with the state offering up the countryside as a sort of tax-incentivised cinematic Airbnb. In terms of film and TV, most people associate Iceland with ‘Game of Thrones’ and a variety of big-budget Hollywood sci-fi flicks, like ‘Interstellar’ and ‘Prometheus’.
Meanwhile, the domestic industry itself has been mostly concerned with realist character-based films that tend to pay tribute, in particular, to Iceland’s rural communities. We see this pretty clearly in the films that have done well internationally, like ‘Of Horses And Men’, ‘Rams’, and ‘Paris of the North’. While many of the themes in Icelandic cinema are certainly dark, it’s been a long time since we saw anything gruesome, murderous, and bloodcurdling take place against the backdrop of The Beautiful Icelandic Nature.
However, this hasn’t always been the case. In the late 1980s, the only television station was the one run by the national broadcaster, RÚV. Although most of the content RÚV produced was nominally informative and educational, something strange happened. Viðar Víkingsson, an Icelandic director, was commissioned to produce two horror films for the state broadcaster—which, at the time, did not broadcast on Thursdays. For cultural reasons.
The first of these, ‘Draugasaga’ (1985), was filmed on-location at RÚV’s studios. A classic ghost story, it follows a newly hired nightwatchman and a makeup artist at the TV studio, which is said to be haunted by a redheaded woman. With some highly stylized sequences and clever use of the location, it succeeds as a spooky black comedy of sorts.
‘Tilbury’ (1987), Viðar’s second horror film for RÚV, is set during the British occupation of Iceland in WWII. Thanks to a real monster this time around—the terrifying, milk-stealing, worm-devil tilberi—and some exceptionally well-executed surrealist sequences, Viðar was ultimately successful in striking a balance between horror and dark humour. Every shot is permeated with a feeling of anxiety and unease—keeping you constantly on the edge of your arse.
Tragically, Viðar Víkingsson never made another horror film. Even sadder is the fact that both films—especially ‘Tilbury’—were of such a high quality that they would no doubt be cult classics today, were it not for the fact that neither was ever released on VHS or DVD. Even with the power of the internet and file-sharing sites, it remains nigh-on impossible to get hold of these movies in any form.
With RÚV never offering up funding for such a production again, Icelandic horror was needlessly—and brutally—bludgeoned to death, long before it was even out of its fleshy egg-womb. With a short-but-sweet history of unique horror films, it’s extremely disappointing to find that the Icelandic film industry has not, until very recently, been at all interested in homebrewing some of its own horror talent or channelling that 80s energy. With a couple of forgettable exceptions, things really haven’t been horrible enough lately.
That is, until now.
In many ways—especially in terms of its premise—‘Mara’ feels like a classic horror movie. A lot of it is silent, in what Elvar calls “a sort of old-school way.” “A horror film is really just about fucking with people,” he says. “And even though this is a horror film, I still have this childish element that I can’t get rid of, simply because of my experience of watching these classic films—they were like children’s shows to me.”
It’s no surprise, then, that some of the most interesting elements of ‘Mara’ lie in the story of its production—or rather, the fairy tales and ghost stories that have already grown up around it.
“There’s this old lady who owns this place,” Vivian says, gesturing around us. It’s 10:45pm and the actors are enjoying a short break (one of many) while Elvar and the crew reconfigure the camera rig (again) to make sure the next shot is just right. Despite repeating the same three scenes for hours and hours, everyone is surprisingly energetic. Vivian especially so, considering this is her first feature film.
“She’s a really rich lady—she has a lot of money,” she continues. “She owns land and stuff. Here, though, she wants to keep things as they are—it has to be like this. She still comes back here now and then alone, staying here alone, with all the same stuff in the house from decades ago.
“When we were moving stuff out, we came across a couple of letters written to her years and years ago. One of them was congratulating her on her newborn. The other came later—a letter offering condolences.” Of course there’s a “baby” born in the film. Of course there is.
“Now,” Vivian continues, leaning in closer, “her son, he had this trailer put outside when we started filming. Him and his wife came here and were talking about the house, saying, ‘Oh, we never go in the cellar.’ They had this dog that was whining and making noises because it didn’t want to go in the house—and they said the dog actually never went in the house.
“You can look at this in a creepy way. We do, of course. What’s funny, and what we found out after we’d already started shooting,” she says, pausing for effect, “is that the dog’s name is ‘Mara’—the name of the film.”
The house isn’t completely haunted though—at least, there’s no blood or ectoplasm on the walls right now. While the bedroom is littered with strange, random objects—ornaments left by the owner; boxes of props; a weird, creepy baby doll—the mood remains upbeat. “We’ve been playing theme songs from other horror movies during our downtime,” Vivian explains. “That’s fun. You stay here as it runs into the night, and everyone gets a bit crazy in the head. The atmosphere is exciting and fun, and of course, it brings flavour to the film. These things start to happen on the set that you can’t always predict, allowing you to act on the camera.”
A FILMMAKING MAFIA
Now that shooting has finished, it’s down to the long and arduous task of post-production, made even longer by Elvar’s meticulous attention to detail and perfectionism. Looking at the sequences which have been completed thus far, though, it’s clear that it really pays off.
In fact, it was his highly conceptual style of direction that got him into this mess in the first place—emphasis on the conceptual. “We don’t have a Kickstarter yet,” he admits, with ‘Mara’ currently relying primarily on private investment. “We originally got the idea for this film three months ago. That is a really short time. Truth be told, we had nothing to do. We had no assignments. So when we first started talking about making a horror film, initially we were just joking. Somebody had the idea that it would be easy to fund a horror film, but we wouldn’t have to use the funding for the horror film—we could just get our salary.
“It was a crazy idea and never went through, but we took the idea of the scam that people wanted to do,” Elvar explains. “They really just wanted to make a trailer—just the most absurd trailer they could make and kind of fund it from there, without really thinking about the how the film would be, what the end result would be. Just, if we had a cool trailer, we could fund it, finish the film somehow.
“We really just started to make the film, though, and haven’t done the fundraising trailer yet. We went with the idea that we thought was the craziest, the idea that had the greatest chance of getting funding from Kickstarter—the kind of thing that just stands out.
“Then we started writing, and it became a bit more serious,” he says, scratching his head. “Maybe it’s the fact that you kind of have a gun to your head in that you have to finish the draft in two weeks. You kind of start to doubt yourself, wondering, ‘Oh my god, this is such a shitty story—am I really writing this?’
“You can’t give up, so you kind of have to find something within that story. That’s kind of where the magic started to happen—and everyone liked it, so we just sort of went along with it. We had enough of a budget to start—we had the crew and the actors. So in one month we just decided, ‘Okay, we’re going to do it,’ and one month later, we were out shooting it.
“Just yesterday, we were still getting in bigger actors for the supporting roles and that’s going really well—they’re saying yes,” he grins. “Two months ago, we have an idea for the craziest trailer we can make, and now people want to act in the film.”
NOT GIVING A SHIT, LACKING DIRECTION, CREATIVE NEPOTISM
With its patchwork budget, small cast and crew, and seemingly ramshackle composition, you could be forgiven for mistaking ‘Mara’ as an Ed Wood-type B-horror production.
However, everything surrounding the film is clearly emblematic of that peculiarly Icelandic brand of creative nepotism, rather than not-giving-a-shit or possessing a lack of direction. It’s groups of close friends and friends-of-friends coming together to just create something—because fuck it, what’s stopping us? That creative energy built upon the spontaneity of “Let’s scam a Kickstarter.” Or, “Oh, I know a guy with a Jeep.” (The Jeep used by the main characters—and the crew, when it isn’t needed for shooting—was actually sourced by Elvar himself, who spent days tracking down the owner of the vehicle after seeing it drive down Njálsgata.)
In this way, much new Icelandic cinema finds a cultural home in the shared power of these libertine creative moments. In terms of its production, ‘Mara’ is in good company among other independent films that have come out of Iceland over the last few years. With many first-time feature directors often relying on calling in as many favours as possible, there’s a clear community beginning to emerge out of our small, but disproportionately productive film industry.
As the first major horror film to be made as part of this emergent movement, however, ‘Mara’ may also be one of the first Icelandic films that attempts to rework a conventional genre into something new and regionally unique. Not only that, but it’s frankly been way, way too long since a kickass horror movie was made here—and given its utterly unique aesthetic, as well as an energetic and enthusiastic young cast and crew, it’s clear that ‘Mara’ is going to be no B-movie flop. Splat.
‘Mara’ is slated for a 2016 release. You can follow the film’s progress on its self-titled Facebook page.
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