Swedish Horror – Sjöström, Bergman and Evil Ed

An article by
Charlotte Wiberg, film and arts critic
Hour of the Wolf

Where does the thriller end, where does the horror begin?

The definition isn’t always easy. Irene Huss – tatuerad torso (‘Irene Huss: Tattooed Torso’, Martin Asphaug, 2007), an extremely violent and fearsome story of a serial killer, could go both ways. The same goes for Kristian Petri’s Bad Faith (Ond tro, 2010), which could also sort under psychological drama.

Using a generous definition, the number of Swedish horror films would total around 60 or 70 entries; not exactly a great number when you spread it across a little over twelve decades.

The early period is strikingly sensible and reasonable. The title character in Mauritz Stiller’s Vampyren (‘The Vampire,’ 1913) turns out to be an ordinary and quite deadly female, and “The Living Mummy” in the film with the same title, Den levande mumien (Fritz Magnussen, 1917), is merely a human male specimen of regular flesh and blood. As for Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Häxan, 1922), we will have to call it a social psychological study on the belief in witchcraft. The spectres in Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen, 1921) is however an eye-catching exception. Sjöström’s disciple Ingmar Bergman would later make his own horror film of sorts, The Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen, 1968). It starts with an at the time typical distancing effect, where the spectators are made aware that what they see is not “real” – as the sound of the recording process is heard during the opening credits.

During the five-decade time span between The Phantom Carriage and The Hour of the Wolf, Swedish cinema horror was primarily handled by the productive and versatile Arne Mattsson, who, apart from a series of light-hearted crime stories also provided some darker films like the Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö-scripted Mördaren – en helt vanlig person (‘The Murderer, an Ordinary Person,’ 1967) and The Vicious Circle (Den onda cirkeln, 1967). Towards the end of his career, Mattsson did some international work, like the British-Swedish slasher film Mask of Murder (1985), starring Rod Taylor and Christopher Lee.

1995 could possibly be called a watershed year, during which the self-parodying splatter comedy Evil Ed, directed by Anders Jacobsson, was released. In the following decades a number of horror films have turned up, produced with varying budget size and characterized by the love of the genre rather than any aspiration for critical acclaim. Still, some key horror archetypes were markedly absent until fairly recent times. The first zombie film did not show up until Jonas Wolcher’s Die Zombiejäger (yes, with a German title) went straight to DVD in 2005. The first vampire film was Anders Banke’s Frostbite (Frostbiten) released the year after.

These days the horror genre has garnered more respect in Sweden – not least through Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in, 2008), an artistic as well as commercial success – but the films are still made on low budgets and with limited, if any, cinema distribution. However, a recent initiative by the Swedish Film Institute called “It’s Alive!,” a short film project launched in 2016 and devoted entirely to the genre, may lead the way to a brighter future when it comes to financing and distributing Swedish horror films.

(published in November 2017)

Swedish supernatural horror

Besides the presence of a various creatures, this list exemplifies different sub-genres within the horror genre: The melodramatic ghost story (The Phantom Carriage), sex sensationalism (Skräcken har 1000 ögon), the haunted house (Besökarna), the vampire movie (Let the Right One In) and the young-people-lost-in-the-woods yarn (Wither).