Mythic Sweden Double Feature – The Ritual / Border

The Ritual (2017) and Border (2018) provide two contrasting takes at evoking Sweden’s mythic past. One brings in an American director to film an English novel & screenplay set in Sweden, filmed in Romania and based on Nordic mythology with no real regional specificity that I can identify. The other is more firmly rooted in contemporary Sweden and its myths, but has been brought to life by an Iranian director living in Denmark.

The Ritual is an atmospheric horror movie in the folk horror mode adapted from Adam Nevill’s novel of the same name (winner of the 2012 August Derleth Award for Best Horror Novel). Taking inspiration from Nordic mythology, it’s effective in sustaining tension and evoking terror but let down in some places by the script.

We’re introduced to the central cast on a boy’s night out at London as they meet at a pub and discuss where they’ll go on their next annual holiday together. Luke (Rafe Spall) is the only member of the group who has not settled down with a partner and a steady job, shooting down the others’ suggestions and still hanging on to the wilder ideas of their shared youth. Rob (Paul Reid) suggests a Swedish hiking trip as a change of pace, but they have still failed to settle on a plan when the group breaks up to head home. Rob agrees to accompany Luke to the bottle shop before heading home, but having stumbled into a robbery in progress, Luke manages to hide while Rob is beaten to death.

Six months later, Luke and the three remaining members of the group are hiking on the Kungsleden in northern Sweden, building a rock cairn and pouring out a drink in Rob’s memory. When Dom (Sam Troughton), who is the most out of shape, twists his ankle on the hiking trail and kicks up a fuss about the distance left to travel, Hutch (Robert James-Collier), the calmest and most competent member of the group, suggests that taking a short-cut straight through the forest would reduce the journey by more than half, and at this point any horror movie audience will conclude that they’re all doomed.

Their first big hint that this is a bad idea is the discovery of an elk’s gutted, still-dripping corpse spreadeagled between the trees several metres above the ground. Despite being freaked out, they continue further into the forest and come across a tree with runic markings. As night falls and the skies open, they are about to pitch their tents when they discover a run-down cabin which looks like a better prospect for escaping the weather. Phil (Arsher Ali) is disturbed to discover a weird wooden sculpture upstairs, a crudely formed headless torso with both arms upraised and grasping antlers. Huddled downstairs in their sleeping bags, they attempt to get some rest while the storm continues outside – but Luke is jolted back awake when the sound is suddenly absent and the flash of the lightning frozen in place, opening the cabin door to discover himself back in the bottle shop with Rob and suddenly it’s daylight, he’s standing outside in the woods and he has five holes in his chest. Terrified and rushing back inside, he wakes Hutch and Dom from their own nightmares before discovering Phil upstairs, kneeling in naked obeisance to the sculpture and unsure how he got there. Although two of them think this might be the time to turn back, things look different in the light of day and Dom is determined to continue.

Director David Bruckner marshals the interpersonal dynamics of his cast to good effect while building a strong sense of disquiet and menace in the claustrophobic environs of the forest. The presence of the forest’s colossal inhabitant (identified later as one of the Jötunn) is at first only hinted at, before certain sounds and distant glimpses through the trees build slowly, with the director never making the mistake of revealing too much. Although more and more is revealed in the final third of the movie (when the central cast have been whittled down), this is one of those rare cinematic creatures which retains its weird aspect and does not lose its menace when its full form is finally displayed – creature designer Keith Thompson (Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak) can be proud of his achievement.

Screenwriter Joe Barton has made some changes in adapting the novel. The opening sequence in London is original to the script and any equivalent to Luke’s hallucinations calling back to this traumatic inciting incident is absent. Barton’s script suggests that Luke’s motivating trauma is the reason he is identified as the central target of the developing events in the forest, an element of the story which is handled better than the flashbacks in The Forest (2016) (reviewed here), but doesn’t ultimately go anywhere, although the appearance of a corridor of fluorescent lights hovering in the air and marking a path towards the edge of the forest does at least look interesting. More effective is Barton’s decision to replace a teenage black metal band with a village of immortal cultists, although a glance through a synopsis of the novel suggests that both the film and movie end abruptly in a similarly unsatisfying way.

Despite the ending, the sustained sense of building horror throughout the film and the effectively handled creature were enough to counterbalance any disappointment I felt and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anybody looking for a creepy folk horror movie. David Bruckner is currently in pre-production for a remake of Clive Barker’s classic Hellraiser (1987), and while I have serious reservations about the advisability of doing so, my enjoyment of The Ritual allows for some cautious optimism which was previously lacking.

Border [Gräns] is based on a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the Swedish author of vampire novel Let the Right One In [Låt den rätte komma in] (2004) and its internationally successful 2008 film adaptation (which I have somehow still never seen). Lindqvist wrote the first draft of the screenplay for Border as well, before the director recruited Isabella Eklöf to expand on the material and add “psychological realism”. Director Ali Abbasi brings an outsider’s perspective which is appropriate to the material, having spent the first 21 years of his life in Iran before studying architecture in Stockholm and then moving to Denmark to learn how to make films.

Border tells the story of Tina (Eva Melander), who works for the Swedish Customs Service and has an exceptional sense of smell which allows her to be uncannily accurate in selecting which individuals should be pulled aside to be searched. She can identify the smell of unopened bottles of liquor being carried by a nervous underage teenager as he walks past. Even more unusually, having pulled aside a businessman whose luggage contains nothing suspicious, sniffing his phone allows her to identify that the memory card contains something illegal – child pornography.

While Tina’s duties expand so that she can provide further assistance in tracking down the people responsible, she finds herself drawn to somebody else encountered during her border guard duties, later identified as Vore (Eero Milonoff). Initially alerted to something odd about Vore’s scent, but unable to find anything wrong, Tina is intrigued by the similarities in their facial structure (which is not like that of most people and generally characterised as ugly), later learning that they both make dogs uncomfortable and they have similar surgical scars around the base of the spine. And then Vore finally drops the bombshell – they are both trolls.

I’m reluctant to give away any further plot developments, but it’s fair to say that the remainder of the film completes the criminal investigation from the first plot thread while exploring Tina’s reactions as she comes to terms with learning about her heritage. Tina’s experience of being raised from childhood as somebody who does not fit in and doesn’t understand why resonates strongly with the real world human experiences of those who have been brought up in other cultures without an awareness of their cultural heritage or the injustices which ultimately led to them being in that position. Tina’s relationship with Vore becomes more complicated, and their differing reactions to their shared cultural past and what it means for their future form the emotional crux of the rest of the movie.

Border is far more authentically Swedish than The Ritual and tells a story which is both more complex and more humanly relatable, rather than being primarily intended as a delivery mechanism for scares. The aspects of the plot which deal with child pornography also convey a more disturbing human evil. And yet despite that (or perhaps, in part, because of that), while I recognise that Border is the better film, I’d be far more likely to rewatch The Ritual. Although I like to challenge myself with my reading, viewing and listening material, sometimes I’d rather just take the easier option.

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