My notes on De dødes tjern (Lake of the Dead) (2019), which I saw at the Ramaskrik Film Festival.
This is a remake of a 1958 film – based on a 1942 novel by Andre Bjerke – which was apparently Norway’s first horror movie, though it does its best to rework a gloomy mystery into something more like an American cabin in the woods (strictly, cabin on a lake in the woods) movie with self-aware characters who are perhaps too given to commenting that certain situations are just like The Evil Dead, A Nightmare on Elm St or Cabin Fever. The earlier film featured more mature, adult characters but the cast here act like eternal students, bickering even before the horrors start.
Nervous young Lillian (Iben Akerlie) is still troubled by the disappearance of her mute brother Bjorn (Patrick Walshe McBride), and is afflicted with spells of sleepwalking – which, combined with the fact that she can’t swim, makes a stay in that cabin with a handy jetty for the lake ill-advised. Also in the party are Sonja (Sophia Lie), a swimmer who has suffered a career-ending injury, Harald (Elias Munk), her new-to-this-gang-and-aggressive-with-it boyfriend, Gabriel (Jonathan Harboe), Lillian’s suspiciously calm and collected ex, and Bernhard (Jakob Schøyen Andersen), who is always recording notes for his paranormal podcast. Kai (Ulric von der Esch), a local who obligingly recounts the legend of Gruvik, who murdered his wife and her lover and drowned himself in the lake, setting off a cycle of possible possession and re-enacted tragedy.
Pranks are played – Harald wakes up with ‘dead’ written on his forehead – and Lillian’s sleepwalking becomes more extreme, augmented by various hallucinations involving black slime. The phones vanish, breakfast is laid by a mystery presence who adds one extra place, accusations fly, that Evil Dead basement is uncovered, and the film see-saws between a natural explanation – with an added late-in-the-day flashback to set it up – and folkloric business abour forest spirits and the ghost of Gruvik. Akerlie is good as the seemingly near-catatonic heroine, and features in one gothic set-piece – apparently referencing the old film – as she takes a long walk off a short jetty in a white nightgown and plunges into dark waters for an eerie underwater sequence. The other characters spend most of the film acting over-jovial or over-suspicious, but that’s part of the game.
As in many Scandi-horror movies, the scenery is spectacular even if the storyline feels familiar. Directed by Nini Bull Robsahm, who was writer/actress on Rovdyr (Manhunt) and directed Amnesia, which also hinges on an ambiguously abusive-controlling relationship.
Curiosity piqued, I looked out the original film … De dødes tjern (Lake of the Dead) (1958)
I get the impression this would be better-known (and more sought after) outside Norway if it had been covered in the Aurum Encyclopedia Horror volume – which at least put an array of non-Anglophone vintage horror cinema on fan radar, and has led to a lot of further digging in archives. Apparently, there is a Sinister Cinema release – but I saw a great-looking print (in unsubtitled Norwegian) after watching the 2019 remake, and found it pretty easy to follow (by looking up some synopses online). It has an interesting, complicated relationship with the work of Andre Bjerke, the poet who published the novel in 1942 under the pseudonym Bernhard Borge – one of the characters is crime novelist Bernhard Borge (Henki Kolstad), while his editor Gabriel is played by Bjerke himself (his wife Henny Moan also has a key role) and psychologist Kai Bugge (Erling Lindahl) is apparently a continuing character in Borge/Bjerke mysteries.
Bjørn Werner (Per Lillo-Stenberg) has gone missing from a cabin by a lake which is associated with a local crime/ghost story, and a group of sophisticated Oslo folk – including Liljan (Moan), Bjørn’s twin sister, and Sonja (Bjørg Engh), Borge’s athletic wife – travel to the remote, eerie location to investigate. A shotgunned dog and a dropped cap hint that Bjørn has wound up in the lake – ever since peg-legged loon Gruvik (Leif Sommerstad) murdered the sister he was fixated on and drowned himself, local lore has it that people who live in the cabin are drawn to their doom under the waters. A diary turns up, in which Bjørn recounts a brush with the see-through spectre of Gruvik – who looks like a demented Captain Haddock – and perhaps his own mental deterioration. Liljan, who might be receiving telepathic calls from her twin, starts sleepwalking, drifting in her white nightgown perilously near the lake.
The party are rather intellectual as sleuths go – in the remake, they become typical spam-in-a-cabin slasher victims – and spend a lot of time hashing over different explanations, ranging from the criminal through the psychological to the supernatural, for all the mysteries. The affable, early-middle-aged male eggheads struggle to understand what the more spiritual younger women in the party instinctively grasp, but that makes for interesting undercurrents.
Director Kåre Bergstrom, who co-wrote with Bjerke, makes a lot of the lake-in-the-woods setting, filmed in cool black and white widescreen which reminded me of some of William Castle’s tricky mysteries (Homicidal, especially) as well as the nature-haunted look of The Innocents or even Night of the Hunter. The generally thoughtful approach has parallels with Val Lewton’s films (contemporary with the novel). There’s a strange stop-motion animated bird, some lyrical underwater stuff, eerie business with the I Walked With a Zombie-look sleepwalker (and one very neat plot trick involving her identity, which is very cleverly set up – and not reprised in the remake), and one good horror shock.
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