The Finnish folk horror of the 1950s includes one film that is now a beloved classic and another that remains little seen internationally – but both are equally extraordinary.
Finland is not a country known for its horror movie output – you could, arguably (and no doubt someone will argue) count the number of Finnish horror films on your fingers. But in the early 1950s, two significant films emerged that both played with ideas of the supernatural, witchcraft and what we now are apparently obliged to call ‘folk horror’. One of these films, The White Reindeer (Valkoinen peura), achieved some international acclaim, winning a special award at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival (for ‘Best Fairy Tale Film’, rather impressively – the only known example of such an award) and would also win a Golden Globe as Best Foreign Film. The other film, The Witch Returns to Life (Noita palaa elämään), had less international impact, and has languished in relative obscurity outside (and, arguably, inside) Finland since its release in 1952.
I first saw these two films in the late 1980s, when I managed to obtain a VHS tape featuring of-air recordings of both from Finnish TV broadcasts. Curiously, Finland was a hotbed of horror movie fandom in the 1980s, and several people were active on the tape trading scene. A certain bemusement was expressed at my interest in seeing these films (the average Finnish horror fan was a defiant gorehound), but nevertheless, the tape – a second or third generation copy of off-air recordings, with no subtitles of course – was duly sent over. Both films were more than I’d hoped they would be, even without the benefit of understanding the dialogue (and to be fair, neither film actually needs subtitles for you to understand what is going on clearly). I fell in love with both films and would evangelise wildly about them at every opportunity (usually to an indifferent response – British horror fans were also defiant gorehounds, by and large). Eventually, I loaned the tape to a friend, and of course, never saw it again. It took a long time to catch up with both films after that.
The two films are very different in style and content – The White Reindeer is essentially a fairy tale, albeit a rather dark one, while The Witch Returns to Life is a more playful, comedic story with a contemporary setting, but behind these differences, the two films have a great deal in common. Both deal with female desire and sexuality, and the way that others – mostly, though certainly not exclusively, men – respond to that. Curiously, the film that is generally seen as the more disposable is the one that makes the more pointed references to the fact that sexually precocious young women are seen as a threat by the wider society, here represented by suspicious and superstitious old people and lust-filled young men who don’t take rejection well. The White Reindeer, on the other hand, is a little less sympathetic to its female protagonist, who really is the monster that she is made out to be.
In The White Reindeer, Pirata (Mirjami Kuosmanen) is a feisty woman in her thirties who we first see taking part in reindeer racing with herder Aslak, who she falls in love with. The pair marry, but Aslak’s reindeer heading means that he is away for weeks at a time. The sexually frustrated Pirata – who we have already seen flirting with other herders – visits a local shaman, with the wish to be someone who is desired by all reindeer herders. In a case of ‘be careful what you ask for’, her wish is granted, but not in the way that she had hoped – she is turned into what we might call a were-reindeer, changing into a vampiric creature who then further transforms into a white reindeer. This reindeer is indeed desired by all the herders, but once one of them is killed, the superstitious locals declare the reindeer to be a witch (“noita!”), and set out to hunt it down. Leading the hunt against the demonic beast is Aslak himself.
The sexual politics of The White Reindeer are pretty clear, it might seem – the film explores the idea that female desire is a literally monstrous thing that threatens the wider community. Whether that is the belief of the filmmaker or something that director Erik Blomberg is criticising is perhaps more ambiguous. The character of Pirata is a multifaceted one, at once tragic yet not particularly likeable, being driven by a selfishness that does not serve the insular community that she lives in – the reindeer herders need to spend time away from their loved ones in order for everyone to survive, in a world where the reindeer is everything – property, food, source of clothing, transport and even pet. Yet her desires are something that we can all relate to, and her selfishness is understandable. However, the film portrays these desires in a decidedly dark way – her sexuality is expressed in monstrous and animalistic form, either as the white reindeer itself or the vampire that she becomes during mid-transformation (needless to say, there is no on-screen transformation shown in the film).
While the sexuality of Pirata is treated with some suspicion, Kuosmanen brings her character to life as a rounded and more tormented than she might have otherwise been. The choice of a thirty-something actress to play the role is interesting – I can’t say that I know much about Laplander culture, but I’m assuming that most people would be married off much earlier in life in a close-knit and traditional community like this, and it’s entirely possible that her character is supposed to be much younger. But the actor’s maturity makes her sexuality more genuine – this is a woman who knows her own mind and acknowledges her own needs. And Kuosmanen has a mature attractiveness that perhaps reflects the rural world of the movie in a way that a younger actress might not have. More significantly, she is able to switch from happy-go-lucky to tortured to demonic with consummate ease – and it must be said that she shines out among a cast that does not give great performances on the whole (though their authenticity as the characters they play more than compensates for any stilted dialogue delivery).
The realist nature of the acting and the almost documentary footage of the lives of the reindeer herders and their communities is actually a real strength for the film – this is realism that feels alien, the insular community living in vast, snowy wastelands and dressed in traditional costume is as far removed from our own lives as can be imagined. Curiously, while the film feels like a period piece, it might not be – the suggestion is that life for these people goes on with unwavering consistency and that the outside world never interrupts their culture. The film’s impressive vistas of snow and desolation are helped by the monochrome photography, which reduces everything to black and white – mostly white – and adds a bleakness that makes Pirata’s desperation all the more understandable.
But on top of this realism, the film layers the fairy tale approach of the story of the white reindeer, bringing a fantastical and unsettling darkness to the story. The scenes where Pirata is in her vampiric stage are impressively creepy, with her fangs and bushy eyebrows combined with Kuosmanen’s flashing eyes to create a creature that is both scary and seductive – it’s her performance that makes her transformation seem authentic, but the lighting and editing also help create a sense of the gothic in this arctic location. The result is a remarkable, unique and enthralling movie that should be seen as one of the great horror films of the 1950s.
The White Reindeer had some international success – critically, at least, winning awards and maintaining a reputation to this day. The Witch Returns to Life has had less impact, and if you were to ask critics, they would probably dismiss it as a lesser film – a more lightweight fantasy that lacks both the production quality and the subtextual elements of its better-known companion piece. I can understand that, but I have to say that for me, The Witch Returns to Life is not only the more entertaining of the two but also the more interesting.
Definitely not a period piece, the film tells the story of an archaeological dig that unearths the body of a witch, who has been staked. After removing the stake and taking the body away, they discover a naked girl in the pit. The film briefly plays with the idea that she might not actually be the reincarnated witch, and that the local peasants and landowner who view her with suspicion are mistaken, but it soon abandons this idea and acknowledges that yes, she has magical powers. And foremost among these – possibly not due to the supernatural, it must be said – is the fact that all men are driven crazy with desire for her, while women treat her with suspicion and fear. None too subtle, then.
But there’s more to this than a simplistic idea that sexually free and flirty young women will excite men and arouse feelings of jealousy among women, although that’s certainly a reasonable point. For one thing, the gender divide is not absolute – the other main younger female character is not irrationally hateful towards the young woman, while the older generation, both male and female, wishes to persecute her. It’s less about a fear of female sexuality than it is about the way the old resent the young because of their vibrancy, their energy and their beauty. And the film is very much on the side of Birgit, the reincarnated witch, who is presented as a force of nature – quite literally, as she seems as much a part of the sunny orchards and countryside (no snow here!) as any of the trees and animals. While she torments and teases the men who fall in love with her and start to fight amongst themselves, you never get the idea that this is purely malicious – while she certainly causes chaos and destruction, it’s hard not to think that everyone involved deserves what they get, thanks to their treatment of her. As she works her way through the men, setting them against each other, we’re aware that none of them was especially likeable to begin with – even before she shows up, there’s the suggestion that one character is already trying to seduce another’s wife, and while there is much talk about ‘the beast inside’ being released by her, you get the idea that it was never the far from the surface to begin with. Even those who oppose her do so for selfish reasons – the peasants are driven by superstition and hatred of outsiders, and Baron Halberg, who lords it over the locals, encourages their antagonistic behaviour not because he really believes that the girl is a witch, but because he has bedded so many locals in the past that he fears she might be an illegitimate offspring come to lay claim to his wealth.
Roland af Hallström’s film would be a fun little romp about hypocrisy and lust under any circumstances, but the film is really made by Mirja Mane as Brigit, the feisty object of desire. Certainly, it’s easy to understand why any man would fall in love with her – she has an effortless sexuality and flirtatious charm that is quite arresting, and even when she is being shown as ‘evil’, she has a twinkle in her eye. At times, she resembles Barbara Steele in her early Italian films – having a similar combination of seductiveness and devilment, innocence and maliciousness – and she dominates the film entirely. And it would be remiss of us not to mention the fact that she spends a fair amount of this 1952 film naked, or at least dressed only in transparent net curtains. It’s teasing, glimpsed nudity admittedly, but it’s still pretty remarkable for the time and probably why the film didn’t travel as well as The White Reindeer – in America, it finally showed up on the Roadshow circuit, where no critic ever ventured, and in other countries, it was probably a censorship hot potato. It’s a shame because if the film had been given a wider international release, it’s easy to imagine that Mane would have been one of the great international sex symbols of the age – if Brigitte Bardot could cause a sensation for showing less flesh (and giving a lesser performance) in And God Created Woman, then Mane really deserved the same. Instead, she made just five films in Finland, and died, practically forgotten, in 1974, aged just 44.
The White Reindeer has recently been issued on Blu-ray in the UK and is now building a reputation among folk horror enthusiasts. The Witch Returns to Life, on the other hand, remains almost unknown except by the most dedicated movie archaeologists and self-proclaimed experts in the obscure. Both deserve to be seen, but the latter in particular is crying out for rediscovery.
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Very interesting article, thank you! Now I will seek to watch that movie.
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