According to the United Nations, Iceland is the third best country in the world to live in. So, maybe it should come as no surprise that the sparsely populated North Atlantic Island isn’t a hotbed breeding ground for homespun horror films. But, a pair of local filmmakers is looking to change all that and spill a little innocent blood in their cold homeland waters.
Director Júlíus Kemp (who as a Producer was responsible for bringing the Ghosthouse Underground film Dark Floors to the US) and Screenwriter Sjón Sigurdsson (Oscar nominated for his lyrical work on Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark) have assembled a cast of stock characters and set them out on a Texas Chainsaw Massacre-styled boat trip—replete with original Leatherface, and Reykjavik native son, Gunner Hansen at the helm.
When an unsuspecting group of tourists set sail—in hopes of setting their sights on some of Iceland’s legendary whale population—they run into a family of crazed “Fishbillies” who are so distraught over the death of the whaling industry that they’ve taken to killing off any and all tourists and activists that cross their path.
Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre’s comparisons to Tobe Hooper’s classic 1974 piece of American Horror Cinema—The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—are not unwarranted. In fact, it would appear for all intents and purposes that Sigurdsson was aiming at homage right off the bat. The film opens by introducing a semi-retarded character (in obvious nod to Ed Neil’s “Hitchhiker”) then it essentially substitutes the van for a whale watching boat and the house for the “Fishbillies” vessel. But where the film most emulates Hooper’s production is in the gritty cinematography and utter nihilism of the finished product.
Kemp and Sigurdsson essentially have only 2 truly sympathetic characters in their film. Leon (played by Terence Anderson)—a gay black man who takes it upon himself to try and save the others (in a very Night of the Living Dead manner), and Annette (Pihla Viitala) a Greenpeace-type who suffers the most torture of any character in the film.
At times it’s hard to differentiate if Sigurdsson’s script is bitingly satirical or just downright mean and nasty. Logic dictates the former as almost every character is a cardboard cutout projecting two-dimensional stereotypes up on the screen. The tourists include a loud and drunken Frenchman, a family of Japanese tourists—photography gear in tow, and even a group of Annette’s Greenpeace-type friends who espouse an utterly asinine philosophical debate about boat engines causes distressed whales to stop singing. In fact those characters are painted as so utterly clueless that when Annette finally gets a hold of them, terrified and screaming for her life, they think she’s high on Ecstasy.
A trio of performances highlight the film, including those of British actress Miranda Hennessy as Marie-Anne a young woman on her Honeymoon alone who has every reason to give up and die, but fights for her life with such ferocity that she would ultimately sell out everyone on the boat to escape. Pihla Viitala, who as Annette, is utterly engaging and tragically abused at the hands of not only a would-be rapist, but later an even more deranged Fishbilly. Annette also serves as an emotional center in a film that struggles to find a central character. On the other side of the coin—as the head Fishbilly himself— actor Helgi Björnsson (Beowulf & Grendel) exudes a petrifying menace with only a glance and makes for a formidable opponent as he barrels through the confines of the ship intent on slaughtering all those on board.
Even with all those things going for it, RWWM is a hugely problematic film. It has loads of good trapped inside tons of bad. For the most part, the bad lies in the film’s utter lack of logic. It’s head-scratchingly unsound and falls apart the more consideration you give it. To begin with, the introduction of the “retarded character” makes it appear that the tourists have been tricked into going on a whale watching trip as a means to provide the deranged family with more fodder for their madness, the problem is that the death of the captain and the abandonment of the cast by the first mate all seem to be happenstance. If there is a correlation between Gunner Hansen’s character of the boat captain and the Fishbilly family then it remains a mystery to the viewer (perhaps a deleted scene somewhere tells the tale). The other part is that of the bizarre escape of a young Japanese tourist. Her drive, determination and ultimate escape, including her shocking disregard for members of her own family, is never explored. In the end, we know she has made it to safety and that she must be of some great importance in the outside world, be we are left only wondering what and who this girl is.
Now, I don’t claim to be someone that needs every minor detail spelled out for me, but both of those two instances permeate the film and make it increasingly difficult to comprehend. It’s also distressing that the action takes place on a vessel that’s not terribly far from shore. Sure the cold Icelandic waters are a frigid and harsh environment and likely to cause death from hypothermia before you ever reach land, but in the face of certain death on board a rotting whaling vessel at the hands of a clan of crazed lunatics, I’d like to think that I’d take my chances in the cold blackness of the sea.
It excites me as a genre fan to see a country not known for producing horror films, to mine its cultural zeitgeist and transform that into a personal film. I think in many ways, Kemp and Sigurdsson did that. It’s just a shame that lapses in logic and far too great a dependence on stock-issue cliché’s litter their otherwise interesting production. The film looks great, providing some stark images and genuine moments of suspense; some of the performances are good, the rest are, if nothing else, inhibited by the simplicity of the script and the cartoon character-depth they are subjected to in the script. Still, if you’re looking for a blood bath with boatloads of abject terrorism then you could do much worse then taking a trip to the fjords for a Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre.