It’s not every day that you see a gay-themed horror film, particularly not one which is expressly ravishing and has stunning cinematography. Although there is plenty of homosexual subtext in some of the greatest horror classics, and even in the more recently produced sequels, having a slow-burning thriller which keeps you on the edge of your seat and is also centered on gay men is a rather new and lavishly entertaining addition on the big screen. This is what makes Erlingur Thoroddsen’s motion picture, Rift (Rökkur), so openhandedly brilliant and innovative.
This year’s Outfest edition has something fresh and enthralling for its viewers which could be considered a new milestone for gay cinema – a captivating and well-executed horror drama that’s explicitly focused on homosexual love. Thoroddsen is a gay filmmaker who happens to be a die-hard fan of the thriller and horror genres. Although the idea of the film was more or less experimental and the whole project was fairly limited (with an extremely low budget and a short production time), it was still picked up by several critics, as well as a few film festivals, including Outfest. Set in an eerie and secluded area in Iceland, Rift (Rökkur) deals with weighty topics like isolation, love and deception. Brimming with suspense, dark romance and the more obscure aspects of the human psyche, Thoroddsen’s film proves that you do not necessarily require a hefty budget and a large crew to create a masterpiece – as long as you have a great story to tell.
After receiving a bizarre and troubling phone call from his former lover, Gunnar (Björn Stefánsson) leaves his home and drives up to a cabin in the middle of nowhere named Rökkur. There he expects to find his distressed ex-boyfrined, Einar (Sigurður Þór Óskarsson), but instead he also finds a peculiar stranger who is lurking outside of the cabin. Although Einar is an alcoholic who is abusive and can’t manage his anger properly, Gunnar still enters the cabin to make sure that his former partner has not done anything to hurt himself. This endeavour leads Gunnar down the rabbit hole of uncertainty, confusion and life-threatening crisis as the two bygone lovers attempt to reconcile their broken relationship. Óskarsson and Stefánsson’s performances are remarkably complementary, sharp and quite impressive overall, given the film’s modest budget. The two actors have incredible chemistry on screen and are always in sync with the tone of the movie and its bleak, ghastly landscape.
One of the most original and intriguing aspects of Thoroddsen’s film is that it uses gay characters but doesn’t focus at all on societal issues or homosexuality as a theme. Instead, it is apparent from the movie’s premise that Rift is not so much about bringing LGBTQ individuals and concerns in the spotlight, but rather about successfully integrating queer characters in some of our most beloved and widely-known film genres. To this end, Thoroddsen incorporates a variety of elements pertaining to different genres – from the complexity of human relationships to the usual horror film tropes and the suspenseful atmosphere with Hitchcockian subtleties that is the backbone of many strong thrillers. All of these nuances are cleverly mixed together in the context of a controversial, dark romance between our two beloved gay protagonists who keep revisiting the old issues of their relationship in an attempt to make peace with the unresolved aspects of their past.
The film is rather open-ended and has a certain vagueness to it which is pervasive all throughout the plot development. Although this type of mystery can add more depth and suspense to a movie, its overuse by Thoroddsen does seem to lead to thwarting inconclusiveness. Nonetheless, Rift (Rökkur) is truly unique both through its storyline and its approach to gay cinema, engrossing the viewer in an intense and overwhelmingly heart-stirring experience. Its crisp cinematography, choice of landscape and gripping performances make it one of Outfest’s most inviting entries this year and a memorable addition to the cultural definitions of horror film.
Read our interview with Director Erlingur Thoroddsen
Featured by Filmmaker Michael Varrati in the Halloween Featurette The Queering of Horror Movies