Friday, December 15

Psalm 21 – a New Swedish Horror Movie

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The Scandinavian – and Swedish – horror wave rolls on. After internationally successful movies such as “Frostbitten” and “Let the Right One In”, Swedish horror movie “Psalm 21” finally opens in its home country on November 5. I immediately became suspicious. Partly because the invitation to the press screening said the movie is 128 minutes. Come on, people, you don’t make horror movies that last over two hours! Horror should be 90 minutes. Tops.

The running time did however turn out to be wrong. I guess it should be something like 98 minutes; the movies was about 30 minutes shorter than promised.

But most of all, I got suspicious since “Psalm 21”, which was shot in the winter of 2008, was screened at Fantastisk Filmfestival in Lund, Sweden, in September … last year! Why doesn’t the movie open till now? I began speculating, after after having seen the movie, I’m speculating even more. Furthermore, I can’t remind myself of having read anything about the movie since the 2009 FFF catalog. Oh, and I didn’t see the movie at FFF, as usual I was attending the book fair in Gothenburg instead.

Jonas Malmsjö plays priest Henrik Horneus in Stockholm, who on his son’s birthday learns that his dad Gabriel (Per Ragnar from “Let the Right One In”); also a priest, has died during mysterious circumstances – he was found drowned in a lake by the small community Borgvattnet, way up north. Confused, Henrik, who’s more or less has lost contact with his dad, decides to immediately drive to Borgvattnet and find out what’s happened.

It’s in the middle of the night and on a dark forest road, a member of Henrik’s congregation suddenly appears, standing in the middle of the road. Henrik runs the old woman over, but when he steps out of the car, the body is gone, as if it’s never been there. And when Henrik tries to continue the journey, the car won’t start. Henrik grabs his luggage and start walking, hoping to find help.

He reaches a typical Swedish, red house with white corners in the dark woods. There’s a light coming from the barn, so he goes there. Then suddenly a little girl shows up, and suddenly her face transforms into a demonic, zombie-like face. Henrik panics, screams and rushes out of the barn, and by now, the Lidmans who live in the house have woken up.  

This here is one strange family, you’d better believe it. Very mysterious. They hardly speak at all and their son OLLE (Björn Bengtsson) has a wonderful mustache. They are suspicious of Henrik, who despite this is invited to stay the night at the motel.

Rumor has it Gabriel was murdered and dumped in the lake. Henrik has nightmares about the ghostly girl lying in his bed, about Gabriel rising from the water as a zombie priest, and about his mother, who died in front of Gabriel’s eyes when he was a little boy. Things sure aren’t as they should with the Lidmans. Soon Henrik slowly realizes what happened to his father and why, a reason that dates way back, and Henrik begins to questions his Christian faith.

“Psalm 21” (The title refers to hymn 21, “Lovely is the Earth”, in the Swedish book of hymns) opens surprisingly good. This is actually really suspenseful, thrilling and creepy: the tone is fateful and the ghostly events effective. The computer generated transformations to demon faces are are really good and cool.

Jonas Malmsjö, whom I’ve never seen in the lead in a feature film before, is not only a good actor; he’s also got a great face — he kind of looks like a robust, manly Hollywood star; like a cross between Alexander Skarsgård and Dolph Lundgren, a hunk who would’ve been perfect as The Mighty Thor. In supporting parts, we get to see Görel Crona, Josefin Ljungman and Gunvor Pontén, among others.

However… Halfway through the movie, it isn’t as fun anymore. The movie is nonfunctional and way too long — and yes, it really feels like those 128 minutes it isn’t. I’ve no idea if the movie was re-edited after the screening at FFF, but there must by an explanation to why it spent such a long time on a shelf before it now opens. I wouldn’t be surprised if several distributors have had a look at it and scratched their head and thought What the hell are we going to do with this?

“Psalm 21” loses almost everything during its second half. All tension disappears, partially because the ghostly faces appear all the damn time, which kills the effect. Several flashbacks are repeated way too many times, and totally unnecessary. We often get to see Henrik running, carrying a giant bible, sometimes he’s running in slow-motion.

The Lidman family is almost parodically weird. They hardly speak at all and just walk around, behaving strangely. Henrik doesn’t know if he’s dreaming or not, and neither do we in the audience. All of a sudden, there’s a sex scene in which the youngest Lidman daughter (Ljungman) seduces Henrik in the barn as were she a succubus (but we only get to see the muscular Malmsjö naked). Where did this scene come from, what did it have to do with the story? And was it only a dream? Olle starts practicing manic overacting. Gabriel takes the opportunity to haunt the place, so that he can have a long monologue. I glance at my watch when it all reminds me of a Bergmanesque drama about anguished characters fighting their inner demons.

The movie is written and directed by Fredrik Hiller, who after having directed several stage plays now makes his feature film debut. The cinematography is good and moody; the sound mix is better than usual for at Swedish movie, and a traditional horror score is on the soundtrack — but the latter becomes a little repetitive and annoying, since it almost never pauses for silence. A grotesque corpse in a bathtub made me jump a little.

There is a good movie hidden somewhere in “Psalm 21”. But to get to that movie, you have to trim at least twenty unnecessary minutes, and the rest must be heavily re-edited. And it’s of course during the second half the thrill-o-meter should go to ten (or eleven), not the first. The story in itself is good and interesting, and Henrik Horneus is a good character.

“Psalm 21” will hardly become a success like “Let the Right One In”. The question is if it will make any money at all. I’m also doubtful if it’ll sell on the international market and get released in as many territories as “Frostbitten” and “Let the Right One In”. The boring second half might prevent that.

The movie, which was shot on Red, is made without support from the Swedish Film Institute, which is unusual, and according to the IMDb, the budget was — wait for it — 800,000 Swedish kronor, which at this very moment is exactly $120,242.86! Compare that to “Frostbitten”, which was $3 million. I would never have guessed that Hiller’s movie was that cheap, so he should have a standing ovation for that achievement.

I appreciate the attempt at making a horror movie in Sweden, but they really needed a script doctor and a daredevil editor.

Finally I must say that I hope I’ll get to see Jonas Malmsjö in more leads in the future.

Images copyright © Krejaren Dramaproduktion/CcV

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