Psalm 21 Review
It often surprises me that Scandinavia isn’t the cultural epicentre of bone-chilling horror; those sprawling, dark forests are surely the location of nightmares, an infinite canvas of isolation and psychological torment for filmmakers to exploit, exposing with raw clarity our innate fear of being left abandoned, trapped, and vulnerable, with escape being utterly beyond our physical and mental clutch. So where is the raging waterfall of nerve-shredding terror that we would expect to witness? Strangely, the filmmakers’ death and black metal geographical counterparts have long laid claim to the area as a capital for their own musical equivalent of the horror film, taking advantage of all of the geographical and cultural factors to build a subgenre which is utterly unique and sometimes compelling, and yet the filmic industry hasn’t used the natural resources available to them with anything matching the often literally obsessive zeal that accompanies the metal movement.
Yes, of course, there have been exceptions; the Cold Prey films showed some appeal, and I barely need mention the recent Let the Right One in. Yet memorable films emanating from the Scandinavian region remain the exception rather than the rule. Therefore, it’s with something between excitement and trepidation that we examine Fredrik Hiller’s directorial debut.
During the opening scenes of Psalm 21, we’re pleasantly surprised as Hiller presents something of an assured delivery; this looks and feels like a high quality production. Yet ultimately, thanks to the introduction of multiple themes and threads which are never fully combined to form a fluid and homogenous output, the final sensation at the close is one of wondering what could have been, had some different decisions and thriftier editing been taken advantage of.
Psalm 21 is almost a movie of two, or even three segments, and the fact that it can be split as such exposes its underlying fragmentation, a fragmentation which is never resolved. The first section of the movie, which adapts the bleak, dark and cold forests ruthlessly, proves extremely effective – in terms of nerve-grating chills, at least. As unconventional priest Henrik Horneus (Jonas Malmsjö) learns of his father’s death, he heads off into the dark night to the isolated village where his father lived. Tired and struggling to see in the gloomy black, he collides with a motionless (yet familiar) figure in his path, and as the figure disappears and his car fails to start, his descent into the almost literal hell of his surroundings begins. At this stage, the situation is virtually a template clone of a j-horror flick, yet all is forgiven as the figures, the atmospherics, and the effects combine to produce an impact which imparts a genuine chill.
The taught atmosphere continues for some time as the confused priest settles into the village where his father lived, yet as the plot begins to introduce the central themes, the scares begin to lose their impact. Technically, the quality of the filming remains strong and imaginative, the orchestral musical score is rich and fitting, and the performances, whilst teetering on the brink at times, maintain a level of integrity which convince. It’s the introduction of multiple plot threads, and the unsatisfactory weaving of these threads which causes the most frustration, and ultimately deprives the movie of what it could have been. Whether it’s the seemingly peripheral subplot of the priest’s congregation member who can ‘see’ souls and curses the priest during her death (she provides part of the eerie atmosphere early in the film, and presumably represents some part of the priest’s ‘guilt’), the scene where his son shuts him out in favour of a console game, or the frankly over-indulgent podium rant at the latter phase, Psalm 21 is something akin to the output of a writer/director who has been incarcerated for 20 years with nothing but his thoughts, and who is unable to control the tide of ideas which flood into his movie.
It’s extremely competently filmed, well acted (including an appearance from Let the Right One In’s Per Ragnar), atmospheric, and often chilling. Yet Hiller’s debut eventually outstays its welcome and overstretches its ambition with an overlong running time, an overbearing Marxist class-based commentary on religion and its oppressive powers, and a plethora of plot threads which are never combined to produce the result which could have been. A viewing is still recommended, thanks to the many redeeming features on offer here, and an awareness of the film’s shortcomings up front may just mean that the eventual disappointment is softened.
Psalm 21 arrives on region 2 encoded DVD courtesy of Revolver Entertainment. The transfer, presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio, is of an impressive standard; the picture is very clean and there are no issues with noise or distortion. Andres Rignell’s stylish and intelligent cinematography portrays a nightmarish vision of the cold, chilling backdrop, and whether documenting the deep, dark, barely perceptible blues of the nighttime forest, or the washed out greys of the hellish and cold daytime scenes, it’s almost impossible to avoid being convinced of the disturbing purgatory before our eyes.
English subtitles are provided, and whilst they are smaller than normal, and also overwrite the opening credits for a moment, the translation feels solid enough and I didn’t detect any errors by way of spelling or grammar.
The audio is available in standard stereo or 5.1 Dolby Digital surround. The reproduction of the sound is pleasing, with the moving orchestral score sounding vibrant, clear, and dramatic. There are no traces of distortion, and though the dialogue is in a language that is not familiar to me, it was reproduced with clarity throughout.
The surround capability is strong enough, with some of the more dramatic moments taking full advantage of the rear speakers to create an engulfing soundstage.
There’s only one extra to speak of here. The VFX Breakdown is a short piece which shows the various stages of production of the often impressive special effects, and is worth a viewing.
Fredrik Hiller’s carefully and imaginatively shot debut demonstrates much promise, and delivers a hefty quotient of chills during its opening forty minutes or so. It opens up some intriguing plot threads amongst the lives of the tortured priest and the closed community where some dark secrets are closely guarded. Yet these threads are never satisfactorily brought together, and whilst the link between religion, guilt, and abuse presents a compelling premise, its final delivery proves overbearing. There’s only one extra to speak of, but when the clean transfer, dark atmospherics, and more imaginative aspects of the film are combined, Hiller proves his debut is worthy of a viewing, and that he may be a name to look out for in the future, should he address the shortcomings here.