Each month in Horror Queers, Joe and Trace tackle a horror film with LGBTQ+ themes, a high camp quotient or both. For lifelong queer horror fans like us, there’s as much value in serious discussions about representation as there is in reading a ridiculously silly/fun horror film with a YAS KWEEN mentality. Just know that at no point will we be getting Babashook.
***SPOILERS for Rift follow.***
Synopsis for Rift: Gunnar (Björn Stefánsson) receives a strange phone call from his ex-boyfriend, Einar (Sigurður Þór Óskarsson), months after they broke up. Einar sounds distraught, like he’s about to do something terrible to himself, so Gunnar drives up to the secluded cabin where Einar is holed up and soon discovers that there’s more going on than he imagined. As the two men come to terms with their broken relationship, some other person seems to be lurking outside the cabin, wanting to get in.
Queer Aspect: The film centers entirely around the relationship between two male ex-lovers.
“My name is Leemoy.”
Rift isn’t a horror film that’s filled with frights, but damn if that line didn’t chill me to the bone. This was my second time viewing the film, and I’ve got to say I appreciated (and enjoyed) it a lot more on a repeat viewing. I still didn’t enjoy it quite as much as my husband did (he gave the film a stellar 4.5-skull review when it premiered at Fantastic Fest last year), but I was certainly more engrossed in what was unfolding on the screen before me. There is a lot to unpack in Rift, so I’ll just jump right in.
On the surface, Rift is about two men sorting out unresolved issues before the “he was dead the whole time” twist rears its head. Upon closer inspection, however, the film could be about a few things depending on how you interpret the clues that writer/director Erlingur Thoroddsen peppers throughout the film (and this is a film that leaves a lot up to interpretation). Here are three possible explanations that I came up with for what happens in Rift:
- Einar called Gunnar to come back so they could work out their unfinished business before he committed suicide OR was murdered by a one-night-stand.
- Gunnar saw Einar commit suicide before the events of the film and was traumatized and repressed the memory. He then fabricated Einar’s call and the film is his attempt to come to terms with his death (or maybe his role in Einar’s death).
- The old man has been murdering people for years, including young Leemoy, who – as a ghost – tried to get young Einar to find his body out in the Disappearance Fields. That same man later murdered Einar and Einar’s ghost is now trying to come to terms with the end of his relationship with Gunnar.
Of course, there could be other interpretations as well, but these three are the most likely. The more straightforward explanation would be Option 3, but I prefer to look at the film believing that Option 1 is the intended meaning (Option 2 is a bit too much of a downer for my taste). No matter which way you look at it, the ending of Rift begs for post-viewing discussion.
What may turn off more impatient viewers is the pacing of the film. Those expecting a more traditional ghost story filled with suspense will most likely find themselves disappointed, though those last 25 minutes are quite unsettling (especially the night-vision sequence). In short, though, Rift could have benefited from a heavier hand in the editing room (I actually wrote “lots of walking around” in my notes).
Joe, what did you think of Rift? Were you as drawn into these characters as I was? What was your interpretation of the end of the film? And wasn’t the cinematography so pretty?
Let me begin by thanking you, Trace – or perhaps I should thank Ari? – for picking this Icelandic gem. Erlingur Óttar Thoroddsen’s film has been on my radar since last year when it made a buzz at various film festivals, but I had never sought it out. Thankfully I knew going in that the film favours slow pacing so going into the screening armed with that knowledge was helpful because it helped me to relax and just let the film unfold.
This is a heavy film, which isn’t something that I was expecting from the plot description. The logline and those opening few minutes definitely seemed to suggest that the film was a ghost film or a psychological thriller, which I was a little wary of (I find that ghost films frequently rely on spectral apparitions that aren’t there when people take another look, while psychological thrillers, when poorly executed, tend to sideline their characters in favour of shocks).Thankfully Rift (mostly) avoids both of those pitfalls, tapping into the conventions of both subgenres without relying on them.
I’m glad that you raised the ending right off the top because I have a feeling that it will be divisive. I was more than comfortable with the decision to leave it open-ended, but that was mostly because the “mystery” wasn’t what was driving the film to me. (I did consider a plausible fourth option, however: Einar was drunk and he fell into the starvation rift and froze to death).
Ultimately there are far too many clues that Einar has met an untimely end – the foreshadowed bottle falling off the balcony, the fact that Gunnar can’t find him when he first arrives at the cabin, literally every conversation with the female neighbor, the way Einar disappears from the bluffs after telling the chilling story of the sheep and, most significantly to genre fans, the red raincoat that can only evoke Nicolas Roeg’s classic 1973 film Don’t Look Now (if you haven’t seen it, drop everything and seek it out). When Gunnar finally finds Einar’s body curled up into the fetal position, it’s not so much a surprise as the inevitable payoff to an anticipated event.
The peppering of these hints, matched with the creepy visuals involving the doors and windows that creep open on their own, are enough to satisfy audiences looking for a mild spooky thrill, but that’s not what drew me into Rift. To me, the film is so fascination not because of its supernatural elements, but because of the relationship between its leads, the strong performances from both actors and that gorgeous cinematography you mentioned, which really serves to reinforce Rift’s themes.
What did you make the sexual initiation stories, Trace? Would you consider this an inherently “queer” film (I was shocked by the number of reviews that made a point of mentioning how the leads could have been substituted out for a more conventional male/female relationship)? And does the film make you want to visit Iceland?
Thoroddsen actually said in Ari’s interview with him that Don’t Look Now was a big influence when he was writing the script for Rift. Both films have a very specific style, and while Thoroddsen may not quite be on the same level as as Nicolas Roeg (yet), he at least shows a tremendous amount of promise, especially since this is only his second film (his first is the pretty great Child Eater). This is a film that deals very heavily with how a person processes the end of a relationship, much like how Don’t Look Now centers on a married couple processing the accidental drowning of their daughter (i.e., the end of their relationship with their daughter). I’m glad you caught the connection Joe!
I don’t want to say that I hate it when films give queer characters such a tragic sexual backstory because I don’t (and things like that absolutely do happen), but it all too often seems like a crutch that films fall on with those types of characters. It’s like some screenwriters go “Okay I need to give this person a tragic backstory. What can I do? Oh! He’s gay. Let’s have him be raped.” I’m not saying that Thoroddsen did this (and if it sounds like I’m being critical of the film I promise I’m not), I’m merely saying that it’s a trend I see all too often in queer cinema. That being said, Stefánsson acts the hell out of that scene and it’s truly heartbreaking to watch.
It is understandable that so many reviews make a point of mentioning how the leads could easily be switched out for male/female counterparts, especially when you consider that the normalization of queer culture is a primary goal for some members and supporters of the queer community. That is a bit of a tricky subject, because while the normalization of queer culture would ideally result in acceptance, by definition it assumes that queer people want to be “normal,” whatever that means. It belittles the trials and hardships that many of us have gone through. I understand the intent behind those types of statements in reviews for the film though. There aren’t a lot of queer-specific aspects to the narrative other than the fact that Gunnar and Einar are a gay couple and the aforementioned tragic sexual initiation stories.
Discussing that topic reminds me of when I was criticized in the comments of our Hellbent article for writing too much about queer issues and making everything about my sexuality (that person has since deleted his comments, hopefully because he realized that he was wrong). Statements like that always bother me because they are usually made by people who come from a position of privilege. When you grow up not being able to safely talk about something that is a part of who you are it’s only natural to want to talk about it as much as possible when you find a space that is safe. For me, Bloody Disgusting is one of those safe places for me – douchebag comments aside. I like talking about something that makes me different and also finding things in film that I can relate to. Queer horror is one of those things.
I imagine that some privileged people might say something similar about a film like Rift. “I don’t have a problem with gay people but I just don’t want to watch a movie about it” or “Why does it have to be about gay guys?” Is it a good thing that Gunnar and Einar could easily be switched out for a straight couple and the film wouldn’t be much different because of it? That is ultimately up to audiences to decide; while I wouldn’t necessarily call it “good,” I wouldn’t call it bad either. Thoroddsen should be applauded for even making a film like Rift. The queer community has very little representation in the horror genre so for something like this to even see the light of day is inspiring. If anyone has a problem with that then they might want to consider the positive effect it will have on a queer person watching it. You’d be amazed at how life-changing seeing someone like you represented on screen can be.
I feel like I’ve digressed a bit from the film though, so I’ll pass it back over to you Joe. What were your thoughts on those final 20 minutes? It’s arguably the most “horror-y” part of the film so did that transition work for you or did it seem out of place? Did you find moments like Gunnar hiding in the closet to escape a predator to be a bit heavy-handed in their symbolism? Or did things like that work for you (confession: they worked for me)? Oh, and I absolutely do want to visit Iceland now.
Before tackling those final, more genre-specific minutes, I want to echo your sentiment. I raised the point about the interchangeability of the characters because I was considering the argument myself while watching the first half of the film. Part of me wondered if the film was queer enough until the truth about their first sexual encounters came out, then it felt like Rift clicked and became a very explicitly queer film.
You’re right, Trace: these kinds of traumatic (childhood) sexual experiences are not universally applicable to all gay men and they’re certainly not exclusive to our community (countless cinematic female narratives have and continue to be established on this same premise). The silence that both men wound up using as a coping mechanism to deal with their trauma struck me as one of the queerest elements of the entire film.
There’s an entire political movement based around the idea of silence = death in the queer community. We are the only ones who speak out for ourselves. We are still marginalized and pushed to the magins. We, along with a few other unlucky groups, continue to be persecuted, attacked and murdered in higher than average numbers. (Hell, I live in a city where there was an active serial killer targeting the queer community and the police blamed us for not helping to catch him earlier).
This is why we continue to need and demand queer stories such as Rift: because if Gunnar’s sexual assault confessional to his dead lover (who may have been murdered because of his sexuality) helps to reinforce that these kinds of encounters happen, that they’re not ok, and victims (and by extension) need to have the safety to tell their story, then that’s powerful and important.
Alright, let’s climb off of our soapbox and get back to the nuts and bolts of the film. As I previously mentioned, the climax was the least successful element of the film to me, but that was primarily because Thoroddsen had to focus on wrapping things up in some kind of satisfactory way. Endings are tough nuts to crack and, unfortunately, they’re the last impression in audiences’ minds, which makes it easy to fixate on how a film did – or didn’t – come together in the end.
In the case of Rift, I think the film’s nightmarish dream visuals catch up with it. When Einar is coming and going early in the film, there’s enough uncertainty to make it work. When Gunnar is climbing through holes in the wall, hiding in closets (sigh), hearing childhood imaginary friends and even fending off blows from a psychotic old perv, it’s definitely the closest that the film comes to horror, but it also feels far less compelling to me. The relationship between the men is what drives the film, but by this time Einar has disappeared in order to drive the plot to its logical conclusion, so all that we’re left with is Gunnar wandering around piecing together the mystery. For my money, Rift works better as a relationship drama than a mystery to be solved, though I recognize that I may be in the minority. If you prefer violence and tension, this is likely the part of the film that works best for you.
For me this last burst of violence is necessary, but also a tad perfunctory. The Don’t Look Now homage of an attack in a confined space is spot on, however, and the aforementioned sight of poor Einar’s lifeless body packs a nice emotional wallop, so I really can’t complain too much.
What does intrigue me, and lends additional heft to the idea that there is something supernatural going on, is the fleeting wrap-around visual of Gunnar standing, looking stunned, with blood all over his face. This is the very first image we see when the film begins and it’s repeated again within the climax. It could mean three things: 1) this is a compelling image to open the film with, 2) it’s foreshadowing for Gunnar’s journey or 3) the timeline is all messed up (in which case your point about Einar already being dead before everything we see and Gunnar is working through stuff is entirely plausible).
I think it’s likely a combination of 1 & 2, but I appreciate the fact that Thoroddsen deliberately refuses to wrap up the events that led to Einar’s death with a tidy bow. Some audiences hate a lack of closure, but I love a good open ending so that’s another point for Rift in my books.