“I’ve been a fan of horror since I was very young,” recalls Erlingur Óttar Thoroddsen, director of the Icelandic horror film, Rift (Rökkur). “I remember being six or seven years old, being at the video store and browsing the horror section. I wasn’t allowed to rent those movies, so I’d make up stories in my mind of what they were about based on the cover art.”
A natural storyteller, Thoroddsen forgoes much of the blood-soaked clichés of the horror genre, opting instead for a more atmospheric, mysterious, and chilling approach. His latest work, Rift (Rökkur), is a haunting story concerning the aftermath of a failed relationship between two men, Gunnar (played by Björn Stefánsson) and Einar (played by Sigurður Þór Óskarsson).
Having moved on with his life, Gunnar is surprised to receive a late phone call from his former lover, Einar. Einar is staying at his family’s property, a secluded encampment located miles from anywhere, so he invites Gunnar to join him in an effort to reminisce about the past and bring some closure to their failed relationship. Once the two men are alone and together, they gradually begin to feel tormented by eerie sounds and unseen entities in the spooky landscape surrounding their humble cabin.
“I really wanted to do a movie about a break-up,” the director explains. “And I wanted to do something in Iceland. And once you take two people and put them in an abandoned, secluded cabin like this, the story just takes on a life of its own.”
Thoroddsen’s choice of location is easily the strongest element of Rift (Rökkur). A spooky, hollow house provides the perfect metaphor for a dead relationship, whereas the surrounding Icelandic terrain is unsettling and otherworldly.
“I had heard about this cabin from some members of my family who stayed there before I wrote the film,” the director says. “When I was telling them about my idea for the film, they told me, ‘you need to go and see this place in the middle of nowhere,’ and went on to tell of how they were sleeping at night and heard a noise and everyone woke up screaming…I had to go and check this place out.”
Rift (Rökkur) is part of a recent surge in filmmaking in Iceland, joining a long list of major film productions that were shot, at least partially, in Iceland, including Interstellar, Prometheus, Oblivion, Star Trek, and most notably, the recent expansions to the famed Star Wars franchise. Known for its incredible natural beauty, Iceland is a land of dramatic juxtaposition, where fire has coexisted with ice for thousands of years.
“The cold,” Thoroddsen points out. “It looked cold, but I don’t think people really understand the cold. There were moments where the actors, they were so cold they couldn’t feel their lips. They didn’t even know if they were saying the right words.”
He goes on to say, “Icelandic filmmaking is definitely changing. It used to be we had maybe five Icelandic films made with support from the Icelandic Film Centre’s film fund. But now with more access to better cameras, for example, we’re seeing more independent work, like Rift, where we can just go and decide we’re going to shoot a movie and don’t necessarily need to wait for the film fund. There’s a lot of work for film crews in Iceland.”
With barely a fraction of the budget of some of the larger Hollywood productions currently shooting in Iceland, Thoroddsen managed to put together an intriguing horror film in Rift (Rökkur). The meandering and somewhat ambiguous storyline and conclusion does leave a few questions unanswered, which may frustrate some audiences. However, the few shortfalls of this film are easily outshined by hauntingly captivating cinematography paired with outstanding sound design. While films of all genres are flocking to Iceland’s mostly uninhabited fjords, mountains, and plateaus, Rift (Rökkur) deserves its distinction as one of the spookiest projects crafted by a very talented homegrown writer and director.
Read our Film Review Rift (Rökkur)
Featured by Filmmaker Michael Varrati in the Halloween Featurette The Queering of Horror Movies
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Erlingur Thoroddsen