– Thea Hvistendahl’s debut feature boasts a peculiar, eerie atmosphere and demonstrates her solid directing skills, but its last third destroys all the promise shown in the first two
Renate Reinsve in Handling the Undead
In Thea Hvistendahl’s debut feature, Handling the Undead, which has world-premiered in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, viewers will notice a clear attempt to subvert the clichés of one of the most common supernatural creatures in horror films.
The helmer’s attempt to shake up genre codes is – at least in part – successful. For this reason, Handling the Undead is a cinematic object that’s hard to label. Certainly, it’s not a horror film – not in the most classical sense, at least – but at the same time, we might be hesitant to bill it as a drama or a thriller.
During the first 25 minutes, Hvistendahl crafts a quiet, eerie atmosphere through which she slowly introduces her leading characters. The action takes place in a rather ordinary setting, yet we can perceive anguish and despair without knowing why, exactly. This sense of doom is rendered through the presence of sparse dialogue, a gloomy colour palette, and a disturbing soundscape that manages to unsettle with both extra-diegetic and intra-diegetic sounds, and even with their absence. The editing is also spot-on, with some suggestive juxtaposition work able to stimulate our senses, prompting lukewarm feelings of surprise, disgust and puzzlement.
The plot, based on a novel penned by John Ajvide Lindqvist, unfolds over the course of a few unusually hot summer days in Oslo. After a mysterious power outage that makes lights, car radios and appliances buzz, three newly dead awaken. Three families who faced a recent bereavement end up – under different circumstances – witnessing the resurrection of their loved ones. The first family is made up of a grandfather (Bjørn Sundquist) and his daughter (Renate Reinsve), mourning the loss of their young grandson and son. The second family is led by a stand-up comedian (Anders Danielsen Lie) who, together with his kids (Inesa Dauksta and Kian Hansen), is afflicted by the sudden death of his wife (Bahar Pars) in a car accident. Finally, the third storyline focuses on a lonely old woman (Bente Børsum) who has lost her life partner (Olga Damani).
From the very beginning, it’s crystal-clear that the three deceased didn’t simply get resurrected. They aren’t very responsive to external stimuli, and they don’t speak, and it’s interesting to see how their nearest and dearest, still coping with grief, develop a twisted relationship with them. In other words, the film makes them – and us as viewers – question what the boundaries are between life and death.
However, this sort of “philosophical” dimension disappears in the last third of the film. To simplify, too many things happen, and they happen too fast, prompting yet more questions and leaving the previous ones unanswered. All of this happens while the director changes the overall storytelling approach adopted until that moment and falls into some clichés that she had been trying so hard to escape. Thus, the final result feels rushed, incomplete and incoherent. It’s a missed opportunity, especially considering how the film’s premise and its hopeless atmosphere showed great potential.
Even though all of the work on the technical side is smooth, it’s also fair to add that the make-up of the three “undead” is not impeccable. The result may be acceptable for the two women, but the child’s appearance and movement are rather patchy, and he ultimately looks like a sort of creepy Pinocchio.