Thursday, June 24, 2010

Rovdyr: No School Like The Old School

Horror's past and present have a weird relationship. On the one hand, you've got all of the remakes/reboots/reimaginings of past classics - A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, etc. Maybe there's an argument for it in terms of compensating for technical deficiencies, but more likely it's an attempt to take advantage of something tried and true. Whether or not these movies succeed is a whole other thing.

On the other hand, you have modern horror movies made to look like horror movies of the past. Rob Zombie was probably one of the first people to really take this tack in recent memory - both The Devil's Rejects and his remake of Halloween were steeped in a 70s-era exploitation film aesthetic, and Ti West's The House of the Devil goes so far as to include era-appropriate props along with the cinematic style.  It's an original story, so what advantage is there to making it look like it came right out of the 70s? I think it's because many horror and exploitation films of the late 70s-early 80s had not just a technical rawness to them, but also an intensity or sincerity that got lost in the wake of later slasher movies (around the third Nightmare on Elm Street movie) and especially the self-referential jokiness that Scream ushered in. Bad things happened, happy (or even less-than-bleak) endings weren't guaranteed. There's only so much smirkiness and ironic distancing that can happen before something feels missing. Is it really a horror movie if you don't feel horrified?

So yeah, I like this whole new films-that-look-old thing. And yeah, I like Rovdyr.

Rovdyr (Predator, also titled Manhunt, or Backwoods Massacre, or Naked: Booby Trap - what the hell, Japan?) is a solidly impressive Norwegian entry in the retro-horror sweepstakes.  It's the story of four campers - Roger, his girlfriend Camilla, Mia, and her brother Jørgen - who stop over for food and gas en route to their campsite in the forests of Norway and run afoul of menacing locals. It is not a novel setup, but it is executed with verve and skill. Opening credits are played over silent, freeze-framed footage of the four merrily roadtipping to the sound of what I assume is period-appropriate Norwegian pop. Think the Bellamy Brothers or the Marshall Tucker Band. Just four kids out having fun, oblivious to what awaits them.

This alone would be a fine way to start the movie, but once the credits are over and we can hear what the four are saying, the reality is a little different: Roger is a belligerent, controlling asshole, Camilla's constantly apologizing and trying to maintain his approval. Mia's sick of Roger's shit and tired of Roger verbally abusing her, Camilla, and Jørgen, who is pretty much a shy manchild, absorbed by his comic books. It's not the rosiest picture, and is probably the result of many hours on the road together in a van. It's nicely underplayed - or maybe just benefits from the subtitling - and although we have a very clear picture of who each one of these people is, they aren't two-dimensional.

Ordinarily, this would just make for some weekend drama and everyone would get over it. But during a pit stop, Roger cracks some insults at rural locals, pretty much poking the sleeping bear that sets off the mayhem in these movies. When we see the nervous hitchhiker, the jeep following them, we know what's about to happen. To the film's credit, when it does happen, it's still shocking - short, sharp and brutal. Our surprise mirrors that of the protagonists, and we know it's coming. There's no wink and nod, no goofy one liner. People are dead now, shit just got real.

From there on out, it's a relentless cat-and-mouse game through the forest. The protagonists get split up pretty quickly, which nicely mirrors the conflict brewing just hours before. Nobody's teaming up in this story, and there are no tired speeches about how if they just stick together, they'll get through this. They're too busy running for their lives. The antagonists are, if anything, even more silent. You can count their total lines on one hand. They're just there, doing what they do. There's no need for words.

Which isn't to say that sound isn't important. It's actually one of the best parts of the movie - from the ironic juxtaposition of happy pop music over silent arguments in the opening credits to a quiet forest punctuated by bird calls, and a hunter's horn heralding menace, sound creates space, presence, and absence throughout, keeping the tension just this side of unbearable. This is the first movie I've seen in a long time where I could actually feel my heart racing.

Even better, this film isn't self-consciously retro. It takes place in 1974, but once everyone's into the forest, it almost feels timeless. It's visually gritty and raw, but still benefits from modern effects technology in much the way a movie like The Devil's Rejects does. The retro feel is most noticeable in the wild-eyed, gonzo performances - the terror and anxiety among the protagonists is palpable and delivered without any irony and slickness at all. It makes people uncomfortable to see others in pain and terror, and that might be part of the pearl-clutching over "torture porn" - when bad things happen, people actually suffer. They don't keel over after one shot from Freddy's glove. They bleed, cry, scream, and beg. That's frightening to watch, and it implicates us just a little. We're right there with the people hunting the protagonists. Just watching them struggle. Maybe it hits a little too close to home. We aren't even allowed the comfort of neat and tidy closure in the end, either. Rovdyr ends very much the way it began - in a car, with an unheard conversation overlaid with sunny pop music. And we are not a bit reassured by it.

IMDB entry
Purchase from (Region 2 only)


  1. I've been very much enjoying your writing about cinema. This movie, in particular, sounds like a gem. I have not watched movies seriously for years; I should remedy that.

  2. I'm honored - your blog was a big inspiration for this one.