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by Jay Seaver

"A pretty girl and creepy atmosphere does not a great horror movie make."
3 stars

"I think it would make a good short" is kind of a nasty thing to say about a feature film, a compliment so backhanded that the implied praise for how skillfully many things are done can seem completely obliterated by the implication that the filmmaker thought too highly of his minor idea. I admit, it was my first reaction to "Thale". My second reaction, though, is that maybe writer/director Aleksander Nordaas should have reached a little higher.

Elvis (Erlend Nervold) is filling in for a friend with a cleaning service that specializes in taking care of human remains, and it's proving to be pretty rough on his stomach. He and his supervisor Leo (Jon Sigve Skard) are called to a remote house in the Norwegian woods where the resident seems to have met a particularly grisly fate. Inside, Elvis stumbles on a secret passage that leads to a secret basement with canned food, notebooks, a tape recorder, and a beautiful, silent girl (Silje Reinammo).

Nordaas has half, or even three quarters, of an impressive horror movie here: The set-up is great. The backstory he gives to the girl and the owner of the cabin is intriguing and becomes more creepy the closer the audience looks at it, with every new revelation stoking both the audience's revulsion and curiosity in roughly equal measure. He pulls the curtain back slowly, revealing just enough new information to keep the audience satisfied, recognizes a good, intense situation when he sees one, and gets excellent work from the design staff and passable results from the effects guys.

But while this meticulously constructed backstory is extremely impressive, the "front-story", if you will, is almost absent. Leo spends a fair amount of time just hanging about outside the house, calling the office to find out if they're going to send anyone else out. Thale (the girl) and Elvis spend a fair amount of time staring at each other, curious, maybe sometimes threatened, but seldom active in a way that traditionally drives a suspenseful story. External threats may eventually appear, but it's seldom a situation where the main characters feel actively involved in their own fate.

A shame, because they're good characters portrayed by a good cast. Nordaas opts to make Elvis both squeamish and curious, and Nervold works that well, making Elvis a horror lead who can forgivably make mistakes. He's an audience surrogate, sure, but one with his own personality. It does leave a little less for Jon Sigve Skard to do as Leo, but Skard handles what he's given just fine, half-forgiving and half-annoyed with Elvis and giving the impression of knowing how to handle this situation. Silje Reinamo is kind of great as Thale, starting off strange and scared as befits the environment where she's found and gaining a further alien-ness as we learn more about her, though not necessarily in the way one might expect.

There's also Morten Andressen as a guy who knows something about who Thale and her late keeper are, which leads to a few fair suspense scenes. Presumably, the film's original Scandinavian audience will know more about what a huldra is; the explanation for this bit of Norwegian folklore is a bit sketchy. Given that this was likely made without a lot in the way of resources - one or two locations, a handful of actors, some decent but fairly brief creature effects - it's very well put-together; I'd like to see what Nordaas can do with a more active script and a little more money.

As it is, "Thale" would make a good short, and that Nordaas can stretch it to seventy-six minutes without it breaking is a fairly remarkable achievement. A little bit more story, and we're not talking about stretching, but something that has the chance to be great.

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originally posted: 04/17/13 09:27:05
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2012 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 23-Apr-2013

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