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Monday, June 14, 2021

Let the Right Ones In: 10 Swedish Horror Movies You Maybe Haven’t Seen

Sweden is hardly known for genre films and has only produced a few handfuls of horror films with a theatrical release throughout the entire cinematic history of the country. Most of them used to be more or less unknown internationally. But 2008 was a particular year in this regard. It marks a drastic increase in horror output – the same amount of Swedish films in the genre were made after that year as in the 100 years before it. The seminal event that sparked this was the release of Tomas Alfredson’s coming-of-age vampire film Let the Right One In. It’s a poignant depiction of the troubled 12-year-old Oskar, bullied at school, dreaming of revenge, and his encounter with the mysterious neighbor girl Eli. The two strike up a friendship, but it turns out Oskar’s newfound pale companion has a secret – she needs to drink fresh blood.

Let the Right One In made a big splash in Sweden and on the international scene. It won more than 40 awards at festivals and ceremonies, including Tribeca, the Saturn Awards, and the Empire Awards, and was BAFTA-nominated for the best non-English film. The film put Sweden on the horror map and paved the way for a renewed interest in genre work within the country. Even the most skeptical critics and producers would now admit that Swedish horror can be both successful and of artistic merit.

But what are some other Swedish horror films? Many horror fans might not yet have explored what else the country has to offer. Although sparse, there is still a body of genre films from Sweden both before and after 2008. To guide you, here are ten Swedish horror films that you may or may not have heard of. Ranging from solemn ghost stories to full-blown splatterfests, it offers a snapshot of what you might find when you dig beneath the well-known international super-hits.

Frostbitten (2006)

Sweden’s first real vampire movie unfolds far up North in the country. An ideal environment for these light-averse blood-suckers since the sun never rises during the polar night in the middle of the winter when Frostbitten takes place. It’s about the teenager Saga who moves to a new town due to her mother’s work as a medical researcher – not an insignificant detail. Saga finds a friend in the goth girl Vega who introduces her to what the small town has to offer, which isn’t much. However, it hides a dark secret. Despite the sinister World War II origin story, Frostbitten is the decidedly comedic variety of horror. Slightly silly, immensely bloody, and with no shortage of memorable one-liners, director Anders Banke delivered something Sweden had not seen, although the film was far more successful abroad.

Border (2018)

By some accused of being too preposterous in its entire premise, no one disputes that Ali Abbasi’s Border is unlike anything you have ever seen. Based on a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist – the same author that wrote the novel Let the Right One In was adapted from – it tells the story of Tina, who works as a customs agent and has an uncanny ability to sniff out criminal activity passing the border. After stopping an unusual character, Tina starts a journey into a hidden world and, in many ways, towards freedom. Border is a genre-defying film that combines elements of fantasy, folklore, crime thriller, and a healthy bit of body horror à la Cronenberg. Sweden nominated Border for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film. It didn’t make it to the ceremony in that category but was nominated for Best Makeup and Hairstyling.

Evil Ed (1995)

1995 was a significant year in Sweden’s film history since it was the last time the national film censorship board – defunct since 2011 – made cuts in a general release. Anders Jacobsson’s splatter satire (“splatire”?) Evil Ed couldn’t have been more timely. The cautious Edward works at European Distribution and is reassigned to the “Splatter and Gore Department” to edit its lucrative Loose Limbs series of horror films. Edward’s job is to cut out the goriest parts to avoid the movies getting banned from distribution. But as his work progresses, Ed grows increasingly erratic, starts hallucinating blood-soaked scenarios, and soon turns murderous. Evil Ed comments on the too widely held belief that watching horror turns people violent while offering a hilarious splatter bonanza filled with references to genre classics. It’s included here even though it’s in English, itself a perfect part of the pastiche.

The Circle (2015)

Levan Akin’s The Circle is a Swedish take on the high school witch coven, another first for the country. Films like The Craft set the standard for this sub-genre, here told through a group of girls that find (or struggle to find) their magical powers just in time to save the world from a great evil. The everydayness of The Circle is a far more interesting setting than the schools of witchcraft and wizardry we’ve seen a thousand times by now. The Circle ran into delays during development due to disagreements between screenwriter Sara Bergmark Elfgren and the film producers. With Mats Strandberg, Elfgren co-wrote the book trilogy the film is based on and wanted to stay true to the universe they had created. But none other than Benny Andersson, founding member of ABBA, bought the rights from the then holders and put the project back on track.

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

The horror fan that is not afraid to delve real far back in film history finds excellent reward in classics such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu. Made in the year between these two, during what is often called the golden age of Swedish silent cinema, we find Victor Sjöström’s ghost story The Phantom Carriage. Legend has it that the last person to die each year is doomed to drive Death’s carriage to collect dying souls throughout the following year. That is the setting as the tale is told of David Holm, struck by unfortunate circumstances and living on as a soul, looking back at his life. The special effects, involving extensive in-camera double exposures, offer a super-spooky feeling to this day, and The Phantom Carriage is still considered one of the great Swedish classics of cinema.

Koko-di Koko-da (2019)

Johannes Nyholm spent many years making innovative animation and shorts before his feature debut The Giant, in 2016. His particular mix of surrealism and emotional gravity continues in the psychological horror film Koko-di Koko-da. It’s a terrifying thriller on the one hand and a dark fairy tale on the other, often bordering on the absurd. Tobias and Elin go on a camping trip in an attempt to uphold a failing marriage, but the forest holds an unpleasant surprise. Not in the form of dangerous animals or evil, unseen forces, but a merry trio of circus sideshow characters that proceed to terrorize the couple in the most gruesome ways. That is just the beginning of an increasingly trippy journey that is ultimately about the confrontation with your inner guilt and fears. The dark scenes of Koko-di Koko-da are interspersed with the gorgeous shadow play sequences that Nyholm is known for, contributing to the film’s dreamlike quality.

Alena (2015)

Adapted from a graphic novel by the same name, Alena is about rejection, revenge, friendship, and love. The titular Alena is new at the boarding school, moving from the city due to a traumatic event. The popular school bullies, led by Filippa, star of the lacrosse team, immediately zero in on Alena and make her days miserable. But she has a friend on her side, Josefin. This outspoken and unabashed ally advocates the opposite of Alena’s soft demeanor: shoplifting, agitation, and violence. Lots of violence. Director Daniel Di Grado has created a brutal coming-of-age narrative framed in stylish cinematography and inhabited by some genuinely nasty mean girls, played well by the young cast.

The Unknown (2000)

Often incorrectly labeled as found footage, The Unknown came to be when a tiny cast and crew grabbed a handful of cash and traveled into the woods to make a low-budget horror film. Around that time, Swedish horror was almost unheard of, but it didn’t stop director Michael Hjorth from just going for it. We follow a biologist team as they set camp far away from civilization to do a ground survey after a forest fire. Reminiscent of films such as The Thing, group members start acting strange, which seems to have something to do with weird cadavers and vermin they find in their samples. Shot in handheld camera style, The Unknown presents a – to Swedes, at least – familiar camping trip ambiance, but one that quickly turns very strange.

Black Circle (2018)

Cult film actress Christina Lindberg is best known as the one-eyed star of Thriller – A Cruel Picture, Quentin Tarantino’s inspiration for the Elle Driver character in Kill Bill. After an intense period of starring in exploitation movies in the ’70s, Lindberg withdrew from the scene. That’s why everyone was so excited when she joined the cast of Adrián García Bogliano’s neo-psychotronic horror trip Black Circle. The movie revolves around a strange hypnosis vinyl record published by a research institute in 1970s Sweden. Present-day protagonist Celeste is recommended to try the record’s routine by her sister Isa who claims it has changed her life. Of course, this has unintended consequences, and the sisters must track down Lindberg’s character Lena who used to work at the institute. Black Circle serves as a love letter to Swedish cult cinema and overflows with references to classics such as Terror in the Midnight Sun and Sensuous Sorceress.

Sensuous Sorceress (1970)

Torgny Wickman was already infamous for his 1969 sex educational film Language of Love which did nothing to dispel the myth of “Swedish sin” that Italian director Luigi Scattini had tried to establish with his mondo film Sweden: Heaven and Hell in 1968. Riding on the international success of Language of Love, Wickman then directed the horror exploitation film Sensuous Sorceress that combines the customary nudity and threesomes with another favorite theme of Swedish movies: religion. The vicar Sven and his pregnant wife Anna live in a small town and invite their friend Hedvig to stay with them and help take care of the house and Anna. But they don’t know that Hedvig has granted her soul to the devil and plans to trap them in an intricate, erotic, satanic plot. By gaslighting Anna and seducing Sven, Hedvig gradually takes lead on the path to moral ruin, townsfolk unsuspecting.


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