To the world and back to the woods – Icelandic feel, American horror and personal visions
Our film journalist Anni Lappalainen had a chance to meet the horror film maker Erlingur Óttar Thoroddsen at the Stockholm Film Festival and discuss his latest feature Child Eater, the dimensions of the horror genre and the Nordic film industry.
Just a few hours before the interview Thoroddsen’s flight landed on Swedish territory from New York, a city he nowadays calls home. Thoroddsen is born and raised in Reykjavík, but graduated recently from Columbia University’s MFA Film Directing Program, where he made two short films within the horror genre. His short film Child Eater from 2012 turned into a feature length film due to a high number of people asking for a feature. One thing led to another, and Child Eater (2016) got its Scandinavian premiere during the Stockholm International Film Festival, 9th to 20th of November.
Child Eater combines a number of things: Erlingur’s love for American horror films from the 80’s, the Icelandic myth of the old woman Grýla eating children, and the fascination for eyes. In Child Eater we meet a little boy named Lukas (Colin Critchley) and his baby sitter Helen (Cait Bliss) in a town where the legend of a blind man eating children’s eyes comes violently alive. The film was shot in an upstate New York town, but doesn’t feel bound to a certain place or time. “We wanted the film to have a sense of timelessness”, Erlingur explains. “The film was very much influenced by typical American small town horror”. This means the film incorporates a few clichés, which makes some moments in Child Eater very comical. Erlingur clearly plays with a tension of being aware what scares the audience, but also what is expected to happen: “the film doesn’t make fun of the style, but doesn’t take itself too seriously either, you know?” Such tension is hard to work with, but it seemed to work – in particular scenes during the screening the audience laughed: when Lukas’s father asks him to fetch something from their cellar, and Lukas gives a frightened look towards the obviously dark cellar door. Or when Helen and Lukas go outside in the evening the boy shouts in amazement: “It’s SO dark!” “I am very happy people laugh at these moments”, Erlingur says. “It’s great, since these moments are supposed to be laughable and fun.”
Horror is certainly not one of the easiest, and it was a pleasure to see Erlingur’s movie being so aware of itself and the genre. “Horror is very much about anticipation, expectations and a pay-off”, he points out and asks rhetorically “how much can you really tease an audience before actually scaring them?” Child Eater is an interesting mix of an indie film and the typical 80’s horror formula, and despite gruesome scenes it ends with a kind of an open ending, which serves the film more than well. However, it was surprising to find such American atmosphere in a film from an Icelandic director. “It’s definitely a luxury to work in both places” he says, which feels quite natural for a young generation of film makers today. However, Iceland will always be Erlingur’s first home, and he already returned to Iceland for his second horror feature, which is now in post-production.
In Child Eater a myth is turned to a monster lurking in the woods, but in Rökkur (2016) Erlingur turned into psychological horror: “now I rather worked with a character-driven story than a plot-driven, with the horror being placed in the character’s heads”. Rökkur is a film with a gay characters and a blend of their memories, imagination and fears in an eerie Icelandic setting, since “there are many creepy details in Iceland that you can work with”. What is then the difference in America and Iceland? “The first reactions to my upcoming film was people in Iceland getting really excited, while in America the mindset was more like ‘gay and psychological horror? That story won’t sell here’“ Erlingur illustrates and laughs.
And what about the the Icelandic film industry? “It’s definitely growing, but is still not that big. There is resurgence, and we could already afford do more various things within film.” Erlingur wishes for an ongoing discussion about genres and development of the film industry in his home country. “Hopefully I can with my work show that there are many different things you can do, and I would love to be a part of the film conversation in Iceland. It’s important to develop such a young, small film industry”. Definitely a goal, and hopefully the Nordic countries would get more visibility in the current and future global film market.
Unfortunately, the 27th Stockholm Film Festival didn’t include that many features from the Nordic countries, but Erlingur’s film was luckily one of them. Through Stockholm Child Eater got its premiere both in Scandinavia and on its first non-horror film festival. Nordic talents will hopefully get their foot in the film festival circuit within Nordic and European markets, as amongst others the Finnish film maker Juho Kuosmanen and his The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki has recently done. Just as Kuosmanen has uttered of the importance of the personal vision, Erlingur talks about his. “I do have artistic aspirations, to make something I truly care about (rather than using a certain formula)”. The Finnish film comes up in our discussion with Erlingur, too: “It´s very beautiful”, he proclaims.