Elves – A Christmas Horror Story

Having revisited an old favourite, it’s time for something new. Hiding amongst the usual farrago of saccharine Christmas programming is Elves [Nisser] (2021), a 6-episode Danish fantasy-horror series which has nothing to do with Santa’s workshop.

It all starts with a typical family Christmas holiday. Mads (Peder Thomas Pedersen) and Charlotte (Lila Nobel) want to get away from the urban bustle of Copenhagen for some quiet family bonding time over the holiday season, renting a house in the rural backwoods of Aarmand Island – a location only accessible by a ferry from the mainland. Their 16-year-old son Kasper (Milo Campanale) is unimpressed by the lack of wifi, with a typical teenager’s appalled attitude at having nothing to do but – shudder! – spend some “quality time” with the family. His 12-year-old sister Josefine (Sonja Steen) is far more open to their destination, chafing at the bit to get out there and explore their natural surroundings – but her parents (and her mother in particular) are reluctant to allow her to leave their side, refusing to think of her as anything other than a child. Josefine is particularly put out at their repeated refusal to get her a dog. Every year her mother refuses on the grounds that she’s not old enough to be responsible for another creature’s care – and one suspects that, with the weary inevitability familiar to many a perennially fobbed-off child, it won’t be too long before she’s told that she’s too old to need a pet.

En route to their cottage, a sudden thump suggests that they’ve hit an animal – but when they get out to take a look there’s nothing in sight, just a sticky black residue on the front of the car. Ignored and dismissed by her elders once again, Josefine is the only one interested enough to follow the trail of black away from the road towards a large electric fence. Her attempts to explore are soon thwarted by the arrival of a couple of threatening locals – Møller (Rasmus Hammerich) and Anders (Lukas Løkken) – who make it clear that the family should leave immediately and, in future, stick to using the coastal road instead.

Fed up with her family treating her like a child and concerned for the animal she’s sure that they hit, Josefine sneaks out of the house when everyone’s asleep and returns to the scene, discovering – to her shock and delight – a baby elf! Determined to nurse it back to health, she hides the elf in their run-down abandoned barn, naming it Keeko in imitation of the creaking, insectile sounds of its speech. The cute little acorn-headed creature with wood-like skin doesn’t seem interested in apples but is very receptive to pieces of bacon – although its reliance on a meat-based diet raises some concerns from Kasper when, shortly after learning of its existence, he stumbles across the body of a dead cat.

Although Josefine’s consideration for the health of stray wounded woodland creatures is admirable, something she’s failed to consider is that there might be other creatures like Keeko out there in the wilderness. Older creatures perhaps. Bigger. In sufficient quantities to justify the existence of a large electric fence which the locals are reluctant to discuss. A fence which was built 15 years ago, in the immediate aftermath of an “accident” at the no-longer-functional lumber yard which saw a significant number of fatalities in the community. And that perhaps propitiatory offerings of cattle might not be sufficient to alleviate any feelings of anger caused by concern for a missing child.

Elves is the brain-child of writer and executive producer Stefan Jaworski, co-creator of the Danish crime series Those Who Kill [Den som dræber] (2011), which was later adapted to US television (2014) by Glen Morgan (The X-Files) with Chloë Sevigny in the lead role. Although most of Jaworski’s credits are in the crime genre, it’s his work for children’s fantasy television which is more relevant here. Denmark has an annual Christmas tradition (dating back to 1962) of the Julekalender – a 24-part family TV series airing daily from the beginning of Advent (1 December) until Christmas Eve. Jaworski has created two previous entries in this tradition: Christmas in Valhalla [Jul i Valhal] (2005), in which three children release a chained man named Loke from a cave in return for three wishes, inadvertently starting Ragnarök; and Tinka and the King’s Game [Tinka og kongespillet] (2019), which follows the titular (much more human-looking) elf as she competes to succeed to the throne after her father’s untimely death. Elves is a tonal hybrid between this more child-friendly fare and his other venture into horror, the American horror movie Shookum Hills [aka The Devil Below] (2021), which shares the plot conceit of an unexplained “industrial accident” (in this instance a coal mine fire) concealing the existence of more monstrous activity. Although Elves probably isn’t appropriate for younger children, I see no reason why it shouldn’t be accessible to readers of YA fiction as the violent incidents are kept largely off-screen, although wary parents should be aware that there are visible splashes of blood and some bodies on display.

Sonja Steen does well in her first screen role, proving quite capable of sustaining audience attention as the character with the most screen time. Although her character’s determination to pursue Keeko in the face of danger becomes frustrating at times, the actress’ performance is convincing enough to sell this as a character choice and not just a plot contrivance. The rest of her family are decent enough in their roles, but it’s the actors playing the island’s residents who are more interesting to watch. Ann Eleonora Jørgensen is the most compelling as Karen, the island’s matriarch – the closest thing the townsfolk have had to an official leader since the inciting “accident”. Jørgensen has worked with Jaworski before, playing the mother of the three children in Christmas in Valhalla and its theatrical sequel The Gold of Valhalla [Guldhornene] (2007). Playing her granddaughter Liv is 16-year-old Vivelill Søgaard Holm, whose only prior role in Resin [Harpiks] (2019) saw her in a similar role as the child of rural parents who are oddly obsessed with folktales. Although her character was clearly created to provide a potential romantic interest for Kasper, she’s far more nuanced and more interesting to watch than the somewhat dull teenage boy played by Milo Campanale. Rasmus Hammerich is likely to be a familiar face to fans of nordic noir, appearing in the third season of the hit Danish/Swedish crime series The Bridge [Bron/Broen] (2015); the second series of post-apocalyptic SF thriller The Rain (2019); and the supernatural thriller series Equinox (2020). Also appearing in The Rain are Lukas Løkken – a core cast member through all three seasons, seen here in a smaller role as Møller’s short-lived assistant – and Lila Nobel.

Esben Toft Jacobsen’s creature design has a suitably organic feel, creating a race of elves which are so exceptionally suited to their woodland environment that they are almost indistinguishable from it, ratcheting up the sense of suspense whenever a character trespasses upon their home territory. The elves are realised via a combination of puppetry, practical costumes and CGI, giving them a tactile presence which would be lost in a purely CGI creation. Like Jaworski, Jacobsen is a creator whose work bridges strikingly different worlds. He’s primarily known as a creator of children’s animation, the writer/director/designer/storyboard artist/editor of two features – The Great Bear [Den kæmpestore bjørn] (2011) and Beyond Beyond [Resan till Fjäderkungens Rike] (2014) – and the odd little TV series Kiwi & Strit [Kiwi og Strit] (2016-2021). This is not what you’d expect of someone who would go on to co-create a dystopian television series about the aftermath of a rainfall-based viral outbreak, the above-mentioned The Rain (2018-2020).

Taking up only six 20-26 minute episodes, Elves is a fairly quick watch. Although it would have been possibly to edit the whole series together into a roughly 130 minute movie, the storytelling benefits from being broken into chapters, while also allowing more space for the characters to breathe. The plot is straightforward and not particularly innovative, but this does make it more accessible for younger viewers looking for a bit of a scare – or for tired adults looking for an easily digestible dark fantasy confection. Although I’d take issue with a couple of character decisions in the final episode, it comes together fairly well and I never felt like it wasted my time.

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