Monday, October 04, 2010

Psalm 21

Psalm 21
Directed by: Fredrik Hiller
Sweden, 2009
Horror, 114 min

This is something quite unique – a good scary movie with some heavy atmosphere that stems from Sweden! If I was asked which Swedish horror flicks are good I would blurt out two or three and then have to search my mind, because there are not too many of them.

The obvious one is Thomas Alfredsson’s smash hit Låt Den Rätte Komma In (Let the Right One In) 2008, and then it gets tricky. Mikael Håfström’s Strandvaskaren (The Drowning Ghost) 2004, Anders Banke's Frostbiten 2006 and Martin Munthe's Camp Slaughter 2004 all fall deep into a pit of ridicule and predictable genre conventions. But at least Camp Slaughter has Fred Andersson giving the performance of a lifetime to make up for it. Someone needs to give Andersson a real acting gig because with each performance I see him in the more he shows his wide repertoire.

But even though there may not be a lot of Swedish horror, I’d definitely point you towards some earlier stuff that I find interesting. 1988 Jack Ersgård directed a kind of schlocky flick called Besökarna (The Visitors) that, in a nutshell, is a haunted house movie with a slow build, a monster hidden in the shadows and pretty all right movie when it all comes around. When I first saw it in the eighties I hated it, and someone wrote that the most scary thing that happens in the movie is that the wallpaper falls off the walls in the children’s nursery. Partially true, but when I revisited it a year or two ago, I was surprised at how well made it actually was. The slow build really established the characters well as they take a plunge down mentally, and then the constant reluctance to show the ghost. Well back in the day this was what I felt wrecked the movie, but in hindsight it’s actually what makes it still stand the test of time. It actually works and becomes a decent little moody piece, which relies on me as an audience to fill in the blanks, and the entity that I imagine is by far more shocking than the one actually revealed in the end. Then I’d definitely point you to sexploitation director Torgny Wickman’s Skräcken har 1000 Ögon (Fear has 1000 Eyes) 1970 even Gunnar Höglund’s Kungsleden (Obsession) 1964. Kungsleden is a sombre headfuck that manages to engage and challenge its audience. That’s two more movies that you should look into if you want to see some interesting stuff.

Arne Mattson made a wonderful and superb suite of Hitchkockian thrillers with a typical Swedish farcical tone that hit a few high notes. Amongst the adventures of the married couple and detectives John and Kajsa Hillman, [Karl-Arne Holmsten & Anna-Lisa Ericsson] there is one that stands out supremely – Mannekäng i Rött (Mannequin in Red) 1958. Its magnificent stuff and I shit you not when I claim that this movie more than likely had some influence upon the later Italian Gialli! The characteristics are all there and even the vibrant colour schemes pop out of the screen in the most magnificent way. It’s even said that Hitchcock at one time presented Mattsson with cigars and the praise that he had made a most splendid movie indeed. Watching that one is more of a demand than a suggestion.

Ingmar Bergman. Even though I constantly moan about the other directors that unfortunately disappeared in the shadow of the great Ingmar Bergman, even he couldn't keep his grubby little fingers away from the horror genre. Amongst his canon there are two that stick out as horror flicks – he even referred to them as his horror flicks – even though he made some really scary stuff where he explored the human psyche too. But never the less Vargtimen (Hour of the Wolf) 1968 and Jungfukällan (The Virgin Spring) 1960 are pretty grim stuff. Vargtimmen tells the tale of a man who sees demons and drags his wife in there with him, and Jungfrukällan is very much indeed one of the first rape revenge movies posing the question when is it right to take another persons life. It also supplied Wes Craven with a story to base his Last House on the Left 1972 with. By the way, both movies star Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman and are required viewing if you want to talk about horror and Sweden from now on.

Obviously stuff like Benjamin Christiansen’s Häxan 1922 and Victor Sjöström’s Körkarlen (The Phantom Carraige) 1921 don’t pack much of a punch these days, but at the same time they are great movies to watch whilst you listen to your favourite music as none of them have dialogue. There is a version of Körkarlen with an audio track by KTL side band of Stephen O’Malley of Sunn o))) which is awesome, but still at the time they where made they where the cutting edge.

Anyways, what’s the state of Sweden these days? Well there certainly is some interesting stuff at work. Kristian Petri – who also made the documentary Brunnen (The Well) 2005 about Orson Welles relationship to Spain, his movies and the well that he was buried next to, giving Jess Franco an opportunity to talk on his friendship with Orson – just released Ond Tro which pretty much takes Giallo traits (especially Dario Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet) and puts a modern spin on it. He’s also slated to bring John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Hantering av Döda (Handling the Undead) to the screens pretty soon, and then there’s Fredrik Hiller’s impressive debut feature Psalm 21.

Quck fix for you before we get into the heavy stuff. A Young priest, Henrik Hornéus, [Jonas Malmsjö] is a beloved priest who holds sermons on the love and happiness that heaven will bring. Yes people, there is no hell in his religious view as the Swedish Church abolished Hell during the late eighties (true it did happen). His world is at its best when he is in his throne in the Church as his cold relationship to his son he has with his ex-wife. This is shown as he clumsily tries to talk to his son a few moments before his ex comes to pick the young lad up. It’s also here the movies weakest moment is found as the relationship between Henrik and his new biddy Karolina [Julia Duvfenius] coldly passes by. The phone rings and Karolina tells Henrik that his father has drowned.

The moment that Henrik leaves the sanctuary of his safe Stockholm parish, odd things start to take place. On his nocturnal drive to his fathers last resting place he encounters his first “ghost” and also whips out his cell phone to check for coverage – why oh god why do we need to show that characters have cell phones but they can’t use them… wouldn’t you be better off not showing them at all? Anyways he walks to a farmhouse near by and after seeing a child demon he get’s some assistance from the damned odd family living there. They are obviously concealing some serious stuff from Henrik. Later that night he has a second cryptic encounter with the child demon – which will fall into place if you think about it after the movie – and Olle [Björn Bengtsson] starts to insinuate that Henrik’s Father Gabriel didn’t die accidentally but was actually murdered! This sets up the movie, establishes Henrik’s ordinary world and slowly introduces a perhaps not to original protagonist, but its done in a really good way. And it goes to places I never thought it would go from there.

Psalm 21 is a pretty decent piece of cinema within the context of Swedish genre movies. It surprised me because I wasn’t expecting a movie of this complexity, not to mention the scares, surreal dream imagery and excellent special effects – even if they are CGI and made by the same people who did the Harry Potter movies FX. Sure it has a few flaws but actually does deliver some scares and has a rather interesting line of question. It relies heavily on religious themes – Faith being the obvious one. Now I’ve been living here since the seventies, and never actually understood that the Swedish church abolished Hell. Not that I’m much of a religion guy anyways, man is a conscious being, we chose to do wrong or right without any pending threat of going anywhere after life. It’s a heck of a lot more complex than doing right to go to heaven… But Psalm 21 uses this abolishment of Hell and uses it effectively in its narrative. At first I thought the movie ended with Henrik loosing his faith – which would have been cool as the mother of all Religion themed movies, The Exorcist sees father Karras' regains his faith – but it’s more of him questioning the set of rules his religious ground is based on. He still keeps his faith, but he can’t go on under the premise that there is no Hell. Instead he has to face the facts that people actually do bad things just for the sheer pleasure of if. There is a hell and that shakes his perception of the world under God completely out of whack.

Guilt is used pretty much and primarily as a force of antagonism. It’s explored though Henrik’s back-story, and also motivates Henrik to widen his views at the climax of the movie. His mother [Lena B. Eriksson] dies in the opening sequence – through a really good looking flashback he keeps returning to that day, and then his mother starts to turn up in his hallucinations. One of them is a pretty shocking twist to an erotic encounter with Nora [Josephine Ljungman] that would have Oedipus jumping with joy. But that parental death never really left Henrik and it’s a pretty strong motivator to his nightmares and self-image. Yes, he thinks of himself as a demon, which is probably why he’s preaching the love of God and heaven so intensely. Sure his father is a Priest too, but I guarantee you that the guilt of his mother’s death is what made him chose the profession.

The usual good versus evil symbolism is pretty sparse, instead it’s represented through a pretty darned clever use of various interpretations of psalm 21 which has different reasoning in the various sources that it can be found in, older editions vs. newer editions of the bible, psalms and Psalteries.

On the down side there are some actors that don’t really measure up here. Unfortunately they are the ones that you would expect to be able to pull it off the best. But the problem is that some of them are established Bergman theatre actors and not genre actors used to acting with small means, which is probably that they act more overdramatically than realistic. Luckily there are only a one or two of them and they are only in a few scenes early on. Jonas Malmsjö gives a great performance as the tormented Henrik, and Per Ragnar [Håkan in Let the Right One In] is dark and disturbing as Henrik’s Father and regional priest Gabriel – although he better be careful that he doesn’t get trapped in a typecast hell because this one has similarities with that other movie he starred in. And I now hold a theory that this movie may have had some kind of effect on Let the Right One In as I was in production at the same time… I’ll say no more to avoid spoiling anything here. Even Görel Krona who I usually think is a crap actress does a great job here. Adding Nicklas Falk (who you will recognize from those damned Millennium trilogy movies if you have seen the original Swedish versions) and up and comming starlett Josephine Ljungman to the mix is great – they present some wonderfully complex characters that are very believable.

But my hat is off to Björn Bengtsson who does a marvellous job as Olle. Olle has some very concrete thoughts of what has happened to Gabriel and as he too is an aspiring priest it causes some serious contradictions for him. And being in the position he is he can’t quite deal with them, or react to them, by his own hand alone. It’s a great supporting character.

I have read comments that the effect of the Demons wears off as the movie goes along. And yeah it does, but I’m convinced that this is Hiller’s intent too as the demons at first serve a function as a shock device in the early stages, then transform to metaphors of Henrik’s mental decent. Finally they are as much a part of the Hell he’s living in as non-demon characters.

Fredrik Hiller has made a really interesting and good movie here, and I think it’s fair to say that this also proves the power of independence. For many years Hiller has been a background actor and voiceover artist featured on cartoons. Following a break in Hollywood where he starred in Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf against Ray Winstone and Angelina Jolie, he buggered right back to Sweden and spent his earnings on the project he’d been yearning to do for almost two decades, direct his own horror movie. The result, Psalm 21, is a good honest old school shock fest with some great use of themes and questions that you really want to check out when it comes around. Because this is one of the best Swedish Horror flicks right now.

Psalm 21 hits Swedish cinemas in early November 2010.


Aylmer said...

Great read J. I too used to lament the lack of good "serious" Australian horror/genre movies until a few good directors started cropping up this last decade.

This gives me a good concise list of Swedish movies to check out. Psalm 21 looks cool, I dig these kind of religious horror movies that have a lot of atmosphere (that's what I gather from the screen shots).

"Mannequin in Red" has just shot to the top of my "old movies to see list" and of course I'm DYING to see Ond Tro which you'd already mentioned to me.

CiNEZiLLA said...

Yeah it really does hold a great atmos. I ended up giving it a four out of five in the magazine I write for. Partially due to the fact that it's a pretty good movie and partially because it's a very good Swedish horror flick and the director certainly pulled it off.

There's quite a lot of decent horror stuff made in the seventies that still is missing on release over here unfortunately and there's a lot more than I mentioned here of course. But there's definately something happening in the wake of Let the right oNe In... because there's a lot of Horror related stuff being made and released over here right now.

Who know's perhaps there's another good one amongst them!

OND TRO seems to be hitting festivals so it most likely will surface near you at some point in time, and I'm almost certain it will hit DVD over here in a few months. :9

Anonymous said...

Just an add here from me being part of Swedish christianity:)

The Swedish church (meaning state church?)have never abolished hell in modern times in the way of a common decision or on a church meeting.
The bible tells us very little about hell because it's not what we are supposed to focus on, but sadly some congregations and priests make a bit of their own theology and interpretations about sometimes vital questions without consulting others or considering how well founded they are.

Just to straight things out.
But it's the way to go if you want to start a cult:p
Thanks for a good review.
Cheers and blessings!

CiNEZiLLA said...

...and thank you Sir for your valuable information. I've had some trouble actually finding out if or when the "abolishment of hell" actually was to be.

And yeah, a cult sounds like a good idea!


Thanks again

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