Silje Reinåmo, Erlend Nervold, Jon Sigve Skard
(XLrator Media; US theatrical: 5 Apr 2013 (General release); 2012)
Folklore often finds its way into horror. After all, the fairytales we are told as kids usually mix a moral - or cautionary example - with enough scares to satisfy a parent’s need for getting the point across. When it works, it’s wonderful. Just ask Guillermo Del Toro who never met a piece of macabre he couldn’t accentuate with a few ethereal, ‘once upon a time’ touches. Now we have Thale, from Norway, which finds a way to mix a [REC] like rendezvous with a unique looking creature with the story of two crime scene cleaners who themselves stumble across a captive girl…who may or may not be one of Scandinavia’s mythic hulders (read: wood nymphs).
Elvis (Erlend Nervold) and his childhood pal Leo (Jon Sigve Skard) are employed by a company hired out to take care of the blood and guts left over after murders, suicides, and other unfortunate “accidents.” The latter could care less about the gruesome situations he finds himself in. The former, far more sensitive and insular, can’t stop throwing up. When called in to find the remaining half of a missing man, they instead uncover an underground lab…and a meek, mute woman known as Thale (Silje Reinåmo). She’s apparently been held captive by the person they are searching for, and within minutes, they realize that something is horribly wrong with this entire set-up. What they also don’t know is that something is creeping around in the woods surrounding the scene…something that wants Thale for its own, and doesn’t like humans interfering with its needs.
Thale is like Splash with a much meaner temperament. It offers up something very familiar to its intended demographic (read: viewers throughout Norway, Sweden, and Finland) while trying to tap into the scary movie market worldwide. At first, everything comes together with a expert efficiency. Writer/director Aleksander Nordaas provides us with an intriguing premise (the crime scene cleaners), a pair of characters we can root for (especially the pained and always anguished Elvis), and a mystery that mandates solving. We want to know what Thale is, or isn’t, what those ‘things’ are crawling around the forest, and how our heroes will become involved, either in saving or exploiting same. There’s even a bit of sympathy stressed for our poor, put upon ‘victim.’ So far, we are totally in.
But somewhere around the midpoint of this movie, things go a bit wonky. Maybe it’s the oddball sequence where Thale mind melds with Elvis, showing him her life without having to really invest any narrative or emotional heft to said past proceedings. It could also be the dull conversations that he and Leo have over what to do (which, basically, boil down to ‘waiting for the boss/ reinforcements’). Or it could be the last act inclusion of some jump-suited jokers who decide to treat the situation like the CDC crossed with Billy the Exterminator. Up until this point, Thale was building a decent head of horror steam. In mere minutes, however, it evolves into an excuse for exposition and somewhat specious CGI.
This is not Let the Right One In. It’s not Rare Exports or even Troll Hunter. Scandinavia has seen a substantial increase in inventive horror in the last few years, and one hopes that Thale could match its more effective peers. Instead, it feels superficial, like a great concept undermined by a small budget and limited talent. The cast is perfectly serviceable. Misters Nervold and Skard have a warm chemistry. They come across as friends, even if the former is a bit of a whiny welp. Miss Reinamo is also effective, though her main performance goal seems to be to suggest as much full frontal nudity as possible without actually showing any.
The production design is also excellent, if a tad too reminiscent of another Spanish zombie apartment riot masterpiece. As our heroes paw through the research used to discover Thale’s secrets, we get a first hand glimpse at some very creative creature work. But then Nordaas doesn’t know what to do with it. He wants to keep things close to the vest, but then starts giving stuff away before we are really ready. Even worse, the flashback approach to telling Thale’s story doesn’t work because, outside the scrim of slick directorial style, we are still missing vital information. Maybe something is lost in the translation from the Frozen tundra to the sunny West. Maybe you have to know the hulder myth in order to get the full effect.
Still, Thale does have its moments of invention and inspiration. One has to say that few films look at the world of fabled monsters and legends with this kind of curious eye. Similarly, there is a seriousness that allows us to fully appreciate the character’s apprehension and the authenticity of what they are experiencing. It’s easy to see this movie reimagined by Hollywood as something similar to the aforementioned Ron Howard comedy - that is, if the whole idea of some social misfit finding the girl of his dreams, and then discovering that she’s something ripped out of your worst bedtime story beliefs - wasn’t done to death. When it tries to do something different and dangerous, Thale succeeds. When it goes for the heart, or the hero moment, it winds up being more miss than hit.