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July 2011

Psalm 21

cast: Jonas Malmsjo, Niklas Falk, Bjorn Bengtsson, Gorel Crona, and Josefina Ljungman

director: Fredrik Hiller

94 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Revolver DVD Region 2

RATING: 7/10
review by Paul Higson

Psalm 21

Fredrik Hiller's theological horror film Psalm 21 may have that rare intelligence but at the same time that, like the BBC series Apparitions, the movie is a nod to a more carefully wrought distant example of the genre (like The Exorcist, The Possession Of Joel Delaney, and Rosemary's Baby), it flounders because of an almost contradictory eagerness to embrace modern effects technologies which are telltale, increasingly familiar and more in keeping with videogame imagery. Effects that are captured in-camera like the terrible spectre of the 1981 film Ghost Story have a more visceral impact than the black bleeding phantoms of today because they are so obviously there within the camera frame.

The effects are also apparently a lauded part of a production history of Psalm 21 which was originally planned to total 12 special visual effects which grew into 75 CGI effects. The producers seem chuffed at this fact, but had it been 12 shots this could have been a subtler and more adroitly composed tale of hell visited on Earth for a handful of characters. Instead the effects tendril in like unwanted weeds and are too often unconvincing.

It has got to be putting talented make-up effects artists out of business and probably makes for a duller shoot as combatants have to imagine the horrors they are up against. No matter what the end results how many actors preferred the fun of the occasional on-set beastie in a John Dark production to looking up at nothing on a Ray Harryhausen picture. Instead, here, pale-faced actors wander the woods later to have their faces digitally eroded, melted, blackened and breached. Not all of the effects are overdone; the brief digital rejuvenation of a character in flashback is how best to get away with it, though at the other end you have flames flickering in the reflection of a another character's eyes which is terribly naff.

A secondary problem with Psalm 21 is that while opening and building ominously, there is a directional twist which takes a course less apocalyptic. Though the shift into something less sinister might work in some films, it is less successful when nudged down from the Rapture into something more benign, albeit still frightful. Otherwise, this is a damned good film about the good and the damned, a cloying horror noir with hints of an odd production history, shooting in Stockholm, Ekero, Osterskar and Skarplinge in November and December of 2008, and then returning for more 'location work' in 'Borgovattnet' during April of 2009.

Under the proposal of Viktor Rydberg, the Swedish church banished the idea of the existence of hell in 1983. Janas Malmsjk plays affable and popular priest Henrik Horneus, entertaining and eccentric at the pulpit: "I bet you want to sing now, don't you? We are getting to that." He follows the church line, bestowing on his well-heeled congregation the promise of heaven and putting the blame for any bleaker picture on mankind's inhumanity to one another, a natural evil. Home life is less rosy for Henrik, his private arrangements darkly mirroring his public popularity. His wife has moved on and their young son is frustrated with dad, favouring his stepfather's faster lifestyle of cars and boats. On returning home, he has only minutes with the boy before he is collected, who sees as much of Karolina (Julia Dufvenius) the girl who helps out around the parish, minding him. With him, the wife and assistant present, the phone rings and Henrik responds badly to news that his father, Gabriel (Per Ragner), also a priest, is dead.

Though dark already, Henrik insists on travelling that night to his father's small parish in Borgvattnatt. The vehicle stalls on the road and he makes the rest of the way on foot where he comes across a barn, lit up on the interior. In the doorway is a child who transforms into something nastier as he greets her. The family that owns the farm are former parishioners of Gabriel's, and take Henrik in, but they behave oddly and the priest begins to suspect that his father's death was unnatural, and that Ivar (Niklas Falk), the father of the family is the murderer.

Ivar appears contemptuous towards Henrik which the priest reads as a threat of exposure for his crime. The removal of religious paraphernalia from the house (as observed in the silhouette of a crucifix on the bedroom wall), also implies a recent conversion to some Satanic trend. The mother Ajna (Gorel Crona), daughter Nora (Josefina Ljungman), and the coroner are all in on the conspiracy. Only the adult son Olle (Bjorn Bengstsson), who's bedroom has been loaned to Henrik, appears to be on his side, but Olle is also a former pupil of Gabriel's and is too obsessed with the good book.

Olle's religious fervour is born out of the violent and vengeful messages that for him prevail in the holy script. As a result one of the more exciting moments in the film is a battle of biblical quotation, between the two, Henrik defending himself in passages of hope, Olle on the offensive spitting out the uglier verses preaching brutal and uncompromising retaliation against those who offend God. "A jealous and angry God is the Lord. The Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries. Happy shall they be who pay us back what you have done for us, who take the little ones and dashes them on the rock´┐Ż it will rain coals of fire and sulphur; a scorching wind... the Gates of Bronze have been unlocked all the way down to the ninth circle... you will aim at their faces with your bows. Amen! Strike! Amen!"

At the beginning of the film, Henrik invites his congregation to sing Psalm 21, "How lovely is the earth..." but when Olle mentions Psalm 21 as Gabriel's favourite hymn and Henrik again recalls "How lovely is the earth..." Olle responds abruptly "No!" Henrik locates his grandmother nearby and she begins softly and innocently in her chat. Then the tone cuts away like a piece of ice from a berg and the remarkable dialogue is back, creating yet bolder images. She recounts how a girl parishioner had led his grandfather and then Gabriel into acts of perversion. "That did it! Yes. But the Tempter hated it. Hated it! That's why he sent an ancillary... from the wicked stump, wicked spread and wicked conquered... he stalked the yard like a foaming stallion!"

The grandmother dies shortly after, joining the ghosts that haunt him already; his mother and a disturbed parishioner. His mother collapsed and died in front of him when he was a toddler, and a parishioner killed herself at the moment his car stalled, blaming him in words written in her own blood. Kariolina informs him of this in a telephone call, recounting how she discovered the body, the face twisted and deformed. She sobs, pleading for him to stay with her on the line but he simply abandons her.

When the solution to the mystery comes it does ironically convey the 1983 revisionism of the meaning of hell. This does not mean that Henrik will return to his pulpit and his original complicit stance. If anything his experience proves to him that the revisionist hell is hardly the soft soap, less scary, vision that he has been selling, but the more devastating of hells and that are more deserving of it because of their comfortable elitist existence. The anti-bourgeoisie cry is too late an attachment, late at the end of 90 minutes, late at the end of a century of such protestation, most of it abandoned several decades before. He is heretical to many of his congregation, as he brands them the wealthy elite buying their way into God's goodness and condemning the less fortunate to the psychological slum and interior mental hells on Earth. "Whoever does not love abides in death!" If only the director had dispelled the CGI this would have been a wholly satisfying horror noir.

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