By Cleaver Patterson.
Crime and man’s inhumanity to man, in one form or another, has frequently proved prime fodder for thrillers and horror films. Two shown on the festival’s third day were perfect examples of this. Though they could not have been more different in subject matter, these films showcased perfectly the cruelty man can, or could, be forced to inflict on his fellow human beings if conditions or circumstances were to configure against them.
Highlights from Day 3
The Hypnotist (Directed by Lasse Hallström): FrightFest was the first film festival in the world to show the original Nordic version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). Four years later and the festival screened the UK premiere of The Hypnotist, the latest entry in the popular Nordic thriller genre—a style of film which is known as much for its chilling appearance as it is for its often gritty content.
Police officer Joona Linna (Tobias Zilliacus) is called to the scene of a brutal family homicide where he discovers that one member of the family, a boy called Josef (Jonathan Bökman), has survived. Traumatized, Josef is unable to provide any help to the police. In order to get to the bottom of the grisly murders, Joona calls on the help of a hypnotist, Erik Maria Bark (Mikael Persbrandt), to find out from the boy what really took place on the day of the murders. Unfortunately, Erik has personal problems stemming from a case he was working on, the outcome of which led to his suspension. His relationship with his wife Simone (Lena Olin) is also under strain due to an affair he had with a doctor at the hospital where he worked, and where Josef is now recuperating. These factors—along with Erik and his family’s entanglement in Josef’s case resulting from an unexpected and bizarre turn of events—lead to a shocking and harrowing conclusion for all involved.
Why, you may well ask, is a thriller being shown at a festival renowned for showcasing horror and fantasy films? On the face of The Hypnotist, a slow boil crime drama based on the novel by the Swedish husband and wife writing team of Alexander Ahndoril and Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril who write under the name Lars Kelper, the film has little violence which could be described as horror. Indeed, save for a graphic murder during the opening scenes and a somewhat protracted chase in a hospital towards the film’s climax, including some vicious attacks with an array of surgical implements, there is little here to disturb viewers in the visceral sense.
However, if you keep in mind that horror comes in a myriad of forms and that what the eye does not see can often be more disturbing than what it does, then this film deserves plaudits for its psychologically disturbing storyline and a cold visual style which is as brittle as the characters who people it. Not only is its depiction of the breakdown of the relationship between the broody Erik and his wife Simone (a marvelously fragile performance by Olin) startling in its intensity, but the subtleties of the film’s premise are engrossing enough to hold the viewer’s attention, creating a film which, though deep, is not so complex that they loose interest in the way you often do with many modern thrillers which are too clever for their own good.
Frankenstein’s Army (Directed by Richard Raaphorst): Wacky is not a word normally associated with horror films, especially those as graphically gory as Richard Raaphorst’s totally off-the-wall trip. If you’re put off by the thought of yet another handheld, lost footage film, forget it. The use of this oft overdone approach in the Dutch director’s first full-length feature, is as quirky and original as the monsters it features, to the extent that you soon forget its presence and simply let it carry you along for the ride.
A group of Russian soldiers are making their way across the border into eastern Germany during the final days of World war II, accompanied by a young filmmaker named Dimitri (Alexander Mercury) who is there in order to officially record the events on film. Happening across a deserted village, they discover at its center a seemingly abandoned building which they tentatively enter. Once inside, they find something which makes the horrors of the war raging outside seem like child’s play in comparison.
Where do you start when trying to fathom the essence of Raaphorst’s vision of hell-on-earth? You could look at the film from a historical standpoint, and dissect its depiction of the Russians, which incidentally portrays them as just as bad in the area of wartime atrocities as any other military force in their treatment of the German civilians who they come across during the film’s early scenes. Or you could discuss its premise as a visualization of the depths a person can sink to when they have any last semblance of humanity destroyed by the environment and situations in which they find themselves.
Ultimately, of course, you could stop trying to read too much into it and take it simply at face value as a new and groundbreaking vision of horror, a film which leaves the viewer speechless by its imagination and ability to shock with its visions of man and machine fused together in a Bosch-like nightmare. The setting – the buildings and war torn environment that surrounds the characters are horrific in their sense of ravaged desolation – evokes an air of dilapidated grandeur similar to that of the original Frankenstein’s lair, which one has come to expect from previous film incarnations. In regards to the depiction of the character’s disintegration as the futility of their situation begins to sink in, this film is startling in its originality and freshness.
Though the opening scenes serve to little more than establish a narrative excuse for the horrors to come, once viewers, along with Dimitri and his comrades, are drawn into the resulting distorted world of carnage and mayhem, the film plays out like a filmic haunted house from which there appears no escape. As with that popular fairground attraction, the tension is built by subjecting you to a journey through a sideshow of freaks, of which the most disturbing aspect is your uncertainty as to what you’ll find around the next corner.
Whatever else a film does, one of its main purposes is to entertain, something which many of today’s filmmakers seem to have forgotten. Fortunately Richard Raaphorst hasn’t, as his celluloid nightmare is an adrenalin thrill ride that produces the effect all horror films should really be aiming for—to unsettle and disturb viewers, yet leave them smiling after the final credits have rolled and yearning to subject themselves to it all over again.
Cleaver Patterson is film critic and writer based in London.