A brief synopsis of Norwegian folklore: Nature is scary as shit, and everything's out to get you.
In a vast and frigid nation still so afraid of wolves it almost eradicates them each year, the out-of-doors never looks like a friend. Old Scandinavian tales reek of lonely death, and thus are perfect fodder for the shapeless fears of old-school horror.
On the heels of 2010's cultishly popular, low-budget Norwegian horror flick Trollhunter, a faux documentary in which student activists discover ancient trolls haunting the barren North, we now have Thale, a horror-tinged mystery based on the old Norwegian myth of the huldra: a sexy, superpowered forest girl with a long tail who might just as soon snap your neck as kiss you on the cheek.
Like a lot of Scandinavian cinema, Thale is unremittingly patient in building a slow-mounting sense of dread. Director Aleksander Nordaas extends each shot for so long he seems bent on testing the boundaries between suspense and outright tedium. This feeling of unease is mirrored by the characters, who vomit excruciatingly throughout. (One's sick, the other's just a weenie.)
The plot is simple. Elvis and Lut—two crime-scene cleaners—find a naked, mute girl (Silje Reinamo) in a bathtub full of milk in the shed of a murdered man. Tape recordings reveal her as a foundling of sorts, a subject of grim scientific experiments. And it turns out she can communicate only telepathically.
As the girl huddles against a wall, mystery gives way to a sense of the askew: Something is obviously terribly wrong with her, the room and the world. Most of the 77-minute film takes place in the shed where she is found, but the skittering, tensely soundtracked, Evil Dead-style camera work lets the viewer know there is something terrifying in the forest. The tone is made yet tenser by the estranged, half-silent relationship between Elvis and Lut. Their conversations take on the glacial tension of gothic horror, and neither is likeable enough to suggest they will make it out alive.
But amid the slow-burn fear and wonder, plus occasional blood and guts, the enduring feeling is not terror but sadness. Its true villain has no gun and no claws: It is the specter of unending loneliness.
Critic's Grade: B+
SEE IT: Thale is at NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium. 8:45 pm Friday-Saturday, April 5-6.