Friday, 19 October 2012

Wither (2012)

I don't know why, but Sweden appear to have been less keen on straight out horror films than us Norwegians for some time. Wither, a classic hiking trip gone bad tale, might well change some of that.

Wither follows a pretty traditional formula; seven young, good looking friends who are ready to party non-stop for a couple of days, seek out an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere. But the gang aren't the only ones partying, there's also some zombie-esque creatures in the basement that are about to have some fun. I say zombie-esque because, like so many other films in the zombie sub-genre, they're not traditional zombies who are a bit braindead and want to eat your brrrraaaaaaiiiins. These motherbitches won't even die from a shot to the head!

It's an entertaining film, but the story will be so well known to most of you that I'm not going to go into great detail. There is one pretty unusual twist here, though: rather than a final girl there's a final boy! That was about time, wasn't it? It looked for a while as if his girlfriend was going to step up to the part, but umm, she couldn't.

I realise that the final girls have been one of the major selling points for people like myself who are interested in both horror films and feminism or at least gender theory. But because the role of the final girl is so established by now, it's cool to see someone mixing it up a bit. It's funny too that there's an implication that it's all because he's completely pussy whipped. Classy.

Unfortunately, where Dunderland might have had one too many sub-plots to follow, in Wither it's almost the opposite. The characters are shallow and underdeveloped, the main story too well known, and any sub-plots are, well, not really there. For a movie of nearly an hour and 40 minutes it does get a bit boring after a while – not because it's not a well made zombie flick, but let's face it: there's quite a few of those by now. And when you don't have a story, even a Final Boy can't help you.

Dunderland (2012) – Witch hunt meets female Jack Torrance

Dunderland is the first Norwegian horror movie to take on the witch hunts which in this country took place mainly in the 16th and 17th centuries. I was pretty excited about this, thinking it's about time that this shit hit the big screens. This film doesn't really engage with the witch hunt stories much though, other than as a backdrop. As a deep, male voice informs us in the intro; in the year 1695, 16 year old local girl Johanne Nilsdotter was accused of witchery and thrown in the lake. Her body was never found, but the community in Dunderlandsdalen keep falling victim to strange, bizarre and tragic incidents. Eventually it gets so bad that the locals proclaim the village a cursed place, and abandons it.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and stage director Laura brings her troup of actors to Dunderlandsdalen, meaning to create a stage play about the witch hunts – making reference to one of Norway's most well known "witches", Anne Pedersdotter. Needless to say, however, things do not go according to plan and weird shit starts happening. We soon understand that the house they've settled in is exactly where most of the bad things have happened over the years. A local farmer killed his wife and daughter with an axe before hanging himself in the barn; it was later used as a scout's camping place before one young girl went missing and the place is abandoned once again.

Creepy remote location? Check.
Obviously the theatre folks want to produce their play in the very same barn where the axe farmer went berserk, and before long, director Laura becomes even more eccentric than you would expect of someone in the theatre business. Then the crew start disappearing, and the mood amongst the remaining actors is less than good.

Meanwhile, the snobbiest of the crew (Paul) refuses to sleep in a cabin in the woods and leaves every evening on a snow scooter to go into town and a proper hotel. He wakes up in the middle of the night and finds a nazi party from WW2 in the living room. This all happens after he's talked to the creepy bartender who, as far as we know, is not a ghost. Paul also pays a visit to the town library where he finds heaps of articles about people who have gone missing in Dunderlandsdalen, bizarre accidents, and weirder than anything; an article in an older paper about the director Laura and her five actors gone missing.

All very creepy and thrilling, sure, but what does it mean, where does it take us? Where does the story go from here?

Turns out, Paul's entire business in the village is little more than a sidetrack for the story. He heads back to find the others and well, he won't get to make another trip into town for some time.

Creepy hotel bartender? Check.
Herein lies my issue with Dunderland; it can't quite decide on which of the many possible plots and twists and turns it presents, that it wants to stick with. There are enough ideas here for at least two or three seperate films, but when they're all thrown together in one 78 minutes long movie, it's simply too much. Or too little about whatever should have been the main story.

That said, I still like the film. The character Laura (Miriam Prestøy Lie) in particular. It's a welcome change to see that someone who isn't a middle aged man can play the weird eccentric lone wolf type person, and Prestøy Lie balances her character perfectly between misunderstood creative genius and a female Jack Torrance. The changes that her character go through in those 78 minutes is very impressive – and my initial fears that she might be a bit of a boring characters are put duly to rest.

And although the film doesn't use the material of the witch hunts as much as it could, at least it does bring it to the big screen. In my view, this has proven again and again to be one of the (many!) strengths of genre film; bring unpopular or controversial stories and motifs to the big screen, so it gets just enough attention for others to want to follow.

A "witch" meets her fate
I do hope, however, that the next time we see Norwegian "witches" (can't use that word without quote marks in this setting, really) in a movie, they will make her less witchy looking. The girl we are presented with in the opening sequence looks like she's lived her whole life in the woods, dirty and in tattered clothes and with hair that's never had a date with a bar of soap or a hairbrush. This is not what most women accused of being witches looked like. On the contrary, they were quite normal women who might have got in a quarrel with the neigbours or become the focus of someone's disliking in some other, normally quite innocent, way. Or, like Anne Pedersdotter as mentioned above; she became a widow not too long after she was first accused of witchery. By both inheriting her husband's wealth, living in isolation and growing more and more aggressive towards her fellow townspeople who, in her defence, were all convinced she was banging Satan or something of the sort. This combination of characteristic qualities didn't do much for her case however, and in 1590, fifteen years after she was first accused, she went on trial and ended up being burned alive at the stake.

It's not that there might never have been anything weird about any of the women accused of witchery, in fact I'm sure most of them were a right bunch of weirdos, much like their accusators and pretty much anyone else, ever. But playing up to that idea of these women as wild creatures, somehow more connected with nature than the rest of us, and with a truly mystical personality – it doesn't do any favours for anybody. The very essence of the cruelty and atrocity of the witch hunts lies in that they were quite normal people. Anyone could be suspected and accused, it was often simply coincidence that decided who was the witch this week.

With all of this in mind, we can only imagine how difficult, near on impossible, it must be to make a movie even just touching upon this historical material, without coming across as slightly, well, misogynist. Because even though it was innocent people getting burned alive and drowned and whatnot, it was that idea that they had some unnatural (!) connection to forces of nature or the supernatural that became their doom. In Dunderland, the lurking evil resides in nature itself, which then takes posession of normal people. How can you present that story without making it look like certain people are being attacked or posessed for a reason? A reason that might live deep inside them? It's interesting at least to think about how this might make us share the perspective of the accusators of the "witches" for a moment; that moment when we might think "ahh, of course it was she who got posessed or who did that weird thing". Because the truth is that these accusations and suspicions were mostly as random as anything, and that's the most important thing to remember about these stories.

Should you want to read more about my thoughts on women with a supernatural connection to nature and why portrayals of this aren't always necessarily misogynist, I suggest you read this: Antichrist and the nature of horror.

Overall, Dunderland scores points for effort, but lacks some depth due to wanting to tell too many stories at once. I'd still recommend it though, it's pleasant viewing and an introduction to something we haven't seen to much about on the big screen, at least in recent times. And I for one will be very excited to see what lies down the road for both writers/directors, and star Miriam Prestøy Lie.