Review: Tilbury

This very rare Icelandic spooky horror movie is about a creature native to Icelandic folklore, the tilberi. A shocking surprise to many viewers when it first aired, Tilbury is one of the best films made within horror and dark fantasy in the Nordic region in the 1980s.

In the 1980s, Icelandic director Vidar Vikingsson made two horror films for the national state broadcaster, RUV. Tilbury was the second film, based on an old folk legend about a specific type of ghost called the tilberi that helped poor farmers get more butter. In Tilbury, we meet Audun (Kristjan Franklin Magnus), a young athlete in Iceland in the spring of 1940. He is romantically interested in a sweet blonde called Gudrun (Helga Bernhard), and when he moves to Reykjavik to get access to a bigger swimming pool, he is also given the task of contacting her on behalf of her father. Unfortunately, an officer from the British army (Karl Agust Ulfsson), which has created a military base in Iceland, is also showing interest in Gudrun. It takes a while for Audun to realize exactly what their relationship is, and he has no reason to be happy about what he finds out!

Tilbury is quite unique in many ways. To understand its position, which is largely underrated and forgotten due to the film’s complete unavailability, one has to know that in the Nordic region in the 80s, state broadcasters were not supposed to use tax money to fund grotesque or fantastical drama, unless it had a strong educational angle. Horror was pretty much out of the question. I can imagine that RUV, the national broadcaster in one of Europe’s smallest countries, would not have funded Tilbury had it not been based on Icelandic folklore. Looking at the film now, over two decades later, it’s sad that this little gem is not available to the public, as it remains one of the best horror films made for TV from the whole Nordic region during the 80s.

One of the decisions that should secure that position, was to set the film in 1940. Making it a period film was not only necessary for the story to involve a British army officer by the name of Tilbury, very similar to the tilberi creature, but it also means that the movie has not aged in a bad way, like films with music, hair and cars from the 80s normally would have done. Most of us did not live through the 40s and thus view it as timeless, as the look of the 40s will never change. You can focus on the characters and the story without laughing at Poco Loco sweaters and shoulder pads.

The story is a little unusual, but that’s of course to be expected from a great film. We’re not talking about a regular monster from under the bed or a well known creature from European or American mythology. There’s no vampire, devil or medical experiment gone wrong in sight. The tilberi sucks milk from a nipple on a woman’s inner thigh, and is basically an evil little demon-looking guy that will kill brutally if he doesn’t get his way. Why he does this is explained in the film, and because the creature and its reason for existing is completely different from every other movie (or “monster concept”), you are invited to pay more attention to the overall story, as well as individual scenes. The tilberi is a new kind of demon to most viewers, and that’s always refreshing. There’s also a Jekyll & Hyde aspect that is important to the story, as it makes events less predictable.

There’s also a fair bit of violence, gore and naked skin present. While none of it is gratuitous and shocking by today’s standards, the film was hardcore enough in 1987 to be shortened when shown in other countries. The shock factor that still remains lies in effective surprises, brutality (though not overly graphic) and selective use of special effects. These are (again) timeless effects and a mark of good film making craft, as opposite trendy tools that people get used to over time, with the consequence that the shock factor diminishes. With few means and I assume a small budget, scares lie in build-up, revelations and intensity, which never goes out of fashion.

Overall, what keeps the movie going throughout it’s 54 minutes, apart from the specifics mentioned above, is a great atmosphere of “something is not right”. Audun’s relatively simple mission is to aim for a target that always avoids being captured, and early hints of the supernatural tilberi creates a Twilight Zone-esque sense of unease. There’s a perfect upwards slope from beginning to end in terms of spooky and ghostly tension, which ends in a climax that probably had never seen its equal in publicly funded Nordic television before. There’s no doubt that Tilbury, for its innovation, tension and horror, is one of the best films made within horror and dark fantasy in the Nordic region in the 1980s.

Rated 9 of 10.

Directed by Vidar Vikingsson
Iceland, 1987

Written by Dag Blomberg