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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Scary Scandinavia

Boy, is it cold up north. The last three Scandinavian horror films I've seen all utilize the unforgiving climes to dramatic effect. The first two were terrific vampire stories, but the latest, which I saw yesterday, was a Nazi zombie story as lousy as anything produced in America. Not that I'm a foreign film snob, but I just think that filmmakers from other countries tend more toward auterism as opposed to the cookie-cutter formulae of the Hollywood corporate film factory. Look at the "Transformers" sequel (God knows I won't). Hideous reviews and still on its way to being a record-breaker.

Back to the topic at hand. I thought "Dead Snow" was going to be another delight, but the Norwegian director/co-screenwriter, Tommy Wirkola, let me down. He worked so hard to follow the crappy American formula that it's exactly what he produced. What a shame.

"Dead Snow" has a lighter-than-air concept: medical students go to a remote cabin in the mountains for Easter vacation and are attacked by an undead unit of Nazi soldiers. Period. Still, if it had been done cleverly, with amusing dialogue and fun splatter, it could've worked, but a heavy air of "been there, done that" hangs over the proceedings.

Clearly inspired by Sam Raimi's superior "Evil Dead" series and Peter Jackson's (also superior) early splatters, Wirkola sets up his simple concept with dull, stereotypical characters (the fat guy, the bimbos, the nerd) and gut-wrangling action sequences that are more tedious than exciting. Even the splendid scenery is virtually ignored, as much of the film takes place in the same boring cabin set. And the set-up is so-o-o slow you have plenty of time to start hating the protagonists before the zombies arrive.

The Norwegian rap soundtrack, amusing at first, quickly becomes grating. The make-up for the zombies is no better than the low-budget Italian monsters of the 1980s, and why do the zombies have rich red blood gushing from their mouths when 1) they're really old; and 2) they've been buried in frozen earth for God knows how long? And I don't care how drunk the bimbo is. The idea of her following the fat guy into the outhouse and having sex with him right after he's—ahem—eliminated just doesn't make any sense. Wouldn't the smell in the air at least cool the fire in her loins? Blecchh, to paraphrase Mad Magazine.

Though you can't compare the two, last year's "Let the Right One In," from more or less the same neck of the woods, stands head-and-shoulders above yesterday's Nazi-zom-com. It's a splendid, affecting coming-of-age story whose protagonist happens to be a vampire. Its quietly chilling premise, set in a snowy industrial suburb of Stockholm, perfectly captures the isolation of a young boy, Oskar, who is picked on at school and lonely at home due to his parents' separation.

When Eli, a new neighbor, moves in next door, he is drawn to her for the company and the fact that she seems to be about his age. There's something strange about her, however: she's impervious to cold and she smells—well—bad. But even when he discovers her secret, he is more fascinated than terrified.

This story is richly layered. In addition to the innocent romance blossoming between Oskar and Eli, we also get a portrait of the townsfolk, who are shaken out of their miserable routine by the vicious murders of their friends. And Eli's "caretaker," a middle-aged man whose job is to go out and get blood for his mistress, is completely and unquestioningly devoted to her. When you realize the source of this devotion, it's mind-boggling, but I'm not going to give that away. I want you to see the film!

The special effects are subtle but powerful. Lina Leandersson, the talented young actress who plays Eli, wears contact lenses that give her eyes a subtly inhuman appearance. And the director, Tomas Alfredson, provides quick, jolting glimpses of a wizened Eli to reinforce the idea that her youthful visage is an illusion. There's some surprising mayhem, but none of it threatens to rip the delicate web that this spellbinding film weaves. Kåre Hedebrant, the boy who plays Oskar, is ideally cast. Blond, pale and soft-spoken, he encompasses the sadness of his character while also providing him with a feisty determination.

Another Swedish vampire film I saw at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood last year is a prime example of how to correctly make a horror comedy. "Frostbitten," from 2006, shares some of the same attributes of "Let the Right One In." The protagonist is Saga, a teenage girl who moves to another depressing Swedish town where her mother has found employment with a somewhat sinister scientist—whom she idolizes—at a mysterious clinic. Saga hates her new environs and quickly falls in with a group of local party animals. When two of them break into the clinic to steal what they think are hallucinogenics, they actually end up with a bag of the mad doctor's vampire-making pills and they quickly infect the kids in the town. To make matters worse, it's the time of year when the sun will not make an appearance for a month.

There's lots of offbeat humor in "Frostbitten." The kids can't understand what's happening to them. They find themselves lusting for the blood of their friends and relatives; they can communicate telepathically with animals; and their social skills, even for teenagers, are just awful. One hilarious episode features a boy who—meeting his girlfriend's parents for dinner—ends up eating their pets instead!

Although "Frostbitten" shares the concept of a month of darkness with "30 Days of Night," it is thoroughly more enjoyable. I got so sick of those stupid "30 Days" vampires with their blank eyes and their dumb-ass philosophizing: "You are not to be alive because you will soon be dead"-style crap.

Speaking of crap, evidently "Let the Right One In" is scheduled for an American remake. God help us.

By the way, the two vampire films are available on DVD. Check them out—you'll fang me for recommending them!

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