There are precedents for writer-director Johannes Nyholm’s nightmarish study of the long-lasting, inescapable effects of grief … Oliver Stone’s Seizure and Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, most notably. It also reminded me that I felt the only way Michael Haeneke could get anyone to watch Funny Games again was to remake it in another language – because this compounds its tale of a grieving couple in the woods beset by sinister, murderous figures out of folklore by playing out its scene of humiliation and harrassment over and over again with variations that mostly serve to make everything that much worse. However, it’s also a hauntingly beautiful film – and there is even a point to its cruelty, though many are going to find it a tough watch. It’s also a movie that’s guaranteed to make you want to pause and go to the toilet, since characters’ pressing need to pee – in uncomfortable or dangerous circumstances – is a recurrent theme.
Maja (Katarina Jacobson), a little girl in bunny face make-up, is struck by an antique toy in a shop window – a crank-handle music box which plays the gruesome nursery rhyme (‘Our Rooster’s Dead’) from which the nonsensical title comes, and bears a jolly yet sinister illustration of three strange people and their animal companions. Maja is on a birthday trip with her parents Tobias (Leif Edlund Johansson) and Elin (Ylva Gallon) – who also sport rabbit make-up. An slightly creepy note is sounded when a pair of clownish types join the party and do that uncomfortable street theatre thing roping in bystanders who don’t quite know how to react and would really rather be left alone to enjoy themselves. Then Elin has a sudden, allergic reaction to mussels – leading to an alarming rash and an overnight stay in hospital. The couple try to improvise a birthday breakfast for Maja the next morning, but she’s stopped breathing in the night … and a shadow-puppet animation reprises the story so far, before we pick up three years later …
Tobias and Elin, now uncomfortable with each other and crotchety about everything, drive into the woods on a camping trip that seems more an obligation than a holiday (when pressed, Tobias admits he’d prefer never to go on vacation ever again). They pitch a tent in the middle of the woods, and Elin wakes up in the night with a pressing need to pee … whereupon the characters from the music box – white-suited comic Mog (Peter Belli), rural giant Sampo (Morad Khatchadorian) and tall gender-ambiguous wild-haired Cherry (Brandy Litmanen), plus Sampo’s dead dog and Cherry’s live vicious dog – show up to harry and kill them. This then happens on repeat, with Tobias retaining a sense that he’s been through this before and taking various, futile survival measures, whether cowering by himself as his wife is attacked, or trying to drag her off to safety as she resists him. However, the most astonishing iteration of the cycle follows Elin, who wakes up in a different season and almost as a different person, and wanders off, encountering a seemingly magical white cat (who is either a great effect or an awards-worthy triumph of cat-wrangling) in a stunning three-minute shot and then discovering a strange little Lynchian theatre in the woods, where the curtains part to put on another version of that shadow puppet sequence. As with the Groundhog Day takes on the tent-invasion horror scenario, looking at the scene again after we’ve spent more time with the characters gives it a new meaning.
Since it was so powerfully deployed in Don’t Look Now, the plot device of a couple haunted by a dead child has been overused in horror – in the run-of-the-mill likes of Vacancy, it’s just there to give the characters something to distinguish them – but here it’s explored in unusual, affecting depth. Its horror scenes are antagonising and upsetting, always catching the victims in exposed, awkward, unflattering poses that evoke the worst aspects of camping even without the Seizure-style trio of folkloric tormentors – peeing in the woods, driving while wearing only underpants, stuck under a collapsed tent and taunted for looking like Casper, beset by mosquitoes.