Review: Draugasaga

In the meager Icelandic horror scene Draugasaga is unique in that it is the first in what is possibly a “series” of sorts; it’s the first of two otherwise unrelated horror films made in Iceland in the mid 80s.

Ghosts have existed in all cultures and so it was no wonder that ghosts were the theme of Draugasaga, the first ever horror film to be made for Icelandic television. The one-hour film takes place mostly at the Icelandic national broadcaster’s TV studios and offices in Reykjavik, and weaves together the legend of a female ghost that haunts the corridors and reality-based people with a quirky sense of how to entertain themselves. More specifically the film is about a new night watchman who is replacing the old one. The soon-to-retire watchman warns the younger guard of a red-haired woman who haunts the building and is quite dangerous. The newbie’s relationship with the ghost, and also his girlfriend who works at the TV station, becomes more and more twisted.

Explicit and clear-cut ghosts are not the point of Draugasaga – nothing like the Japanese ghosts from blockbuster features of recent times; the spookyness lies in not knowing what is going on, and not knowing how the characters will act and react. Draugasaga is not a monster-type ghost story, but a character-based study of the human mind. And those stories are usually the better ones, as monsters are often one-dimensional. With real humans, at least you have a bigger potential for depth and surprises. Draugasaga is not really a character drama as such, but focus lies more in the characters than in the scares. The story takes place in the studios and offices of a TV station but these relatively familiar locations are haunted by insecurity (and a sledge hammer) at night, which is where the real drama lies. Even so, this very rare film (which is not available to watch or buy anywhere) makes great impression in scenes that are strongly built, such as the attack on the man in the elevator, and the rotten corpse on the bus. These scenes certainly scared TV audiences in the mid 80s in Scandinavia, which were not used to televised horror content. The impact of these head-on horror scenes is made stronger by nicely paced (but slow by today’s standards) and eerie sequences that wraps the entire film in a Twin Peaks-esque feeling of things being normal, although obviously they are not.

Writing the story so that it takes place at a TV station was probably a huge cost-saver for Iceland’s small broadcaster, as they could shoot the film on location without any location expenses, but director Vikingsson was more clever than that; the story could not have been set elsewhere as it draws from the actual locations and uses the make-up room as an important element, as an example. You don’t have a make-up room at, say, the offices of a bank, and so the locations add to the relevancy of what goes on. It’s not a generic story and it feels original and fresh due to not being just another version of “monster of the month” from some horror anthology. Additionally, and I don’t know if this was intended, the film could also be said to be a sociological commentary on TV as a phenomenon; it’s all make-believe, and we entertain ourselves to death. Television is intangible and perhaps not for real, like a ghost, and yet we are dictated by it, just as several characters are influenced or dictated by the ghost in the film.

Draugasaga is a prime example of unease and atmosphere, and also how to use the story’s location to maximum effect. It’s almost as if the TV house becomes another character. The film will perhaps not scare TV audiences today as much as it did 25 years ago, but remains a fine and moody hour of ghostly suspense. No offense to red-headed women intended, though.

Rated 7 of 10.

Iceland, 1985
Directed by Vidar Vikingsson

Review written by Dag Blomberg

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