Review: Psalm 21

Fredrik Hiller’s horror-chiller Psalm 21 offers some great visuals but also plenty of traditional themes from the “evil religion” subgenre.

Religion and faith must be a good starting point for horror movies; everyone has a relationship to it or an opinion, and there’s Hell for some juicy inspiration and effects. In Psalm 21, director Fredrik Hiller looks into the mind of a priest who is not finished with his past.

Henrik is a young-ish urban priest who is quite popular in his parish, and has a nice family. He seems to have a good life, but when he travels to the country to bury his father who recently died, strange things start to happen, not just around him but also in his mind. His car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, and he gets help from a family that adds to the weirdness. Scary visions, memories and nightmares start to push his mental limits.

It has been said that in Sweden, people don’t believe in horror movies because Swedes are so secularized and rational that supernatural beings can’t get a grip on them. How difficult must it not be then, to launch a horror movie based on religion and faith in the country that likes to call itself the most modern nation in the world. To must Swedes, the Church, the Bible and inner demons is something they’ve only heard about from Medieval archives. It’s therefore a bold move by director-writer Hiller to release Psalm 21 in cinemas. Such themes are usually explored in TV thrillers where sick criminals are caught by Swedens many Becks and Wallanders.

Psalm 21 is mostly a psychological horror movie, but the inner demons and horrific visions that plague Henrik are clearly and frequently visible to the viewers, and embodied in what is perceived as physical manifestations. To most horror fans, these visions are the money shots, but they are two-sided; these effects sequences are well made and quite haunting in themselves, but in the course of the movie they are repeated with minor variations, and become somewhat predictable. Repeats can have a positive effect on the viewer if it manages to create a hypnotic feeling, but not in this case. Either there is some symbolic meaning to the repeats that gets lost on the viewer, or the production could not afford to expand the SFX palette. After a while, the horror surprises wean and you start thinking why there isn’t room for something else. This is, in technical terms, the most annoying part of the movie. The effects are very well designed though (a blend of make-up and CGI) .

Another “special effect”, if you can call it that, is the 1970s look of much of the movie. Intentional or not, but I found this to be an interesting aspect and something that adds an extra dimension to Henrik’s problems. While the movie takes place in current days, certain production design elements looks as if they’re remnants of the 70s; cars, hairdos, clothes, furniture. I bet Henrik, who grew up in the 70s and laid the foundations for his problems then, never actually left the 70s emotionally. And maybe it is a tribute to the greatest religious horror film, The Exorcist?

Psalm 21 is to a great extent a typical religious horror movie, but as a movie experience it isn’t very typical of Scandinavian genre fare. Most horror movies from up there deal with physical horror and trendy monsters such as vampires or serial killers. The lack of this doesn’t make Psalm 21 a great movie in itself, but the lack of competition makes it a fresh entry into a genre that has been standing still for a few years. What does make the movie interesting as well is that it offers room for witnessing a religious and emotional struggle without theorizing and intellectualizing too much, which would be a typical Scandinavian solution. Psalm 21 falls down on the side of entertainment, and not as an argument in a religious debate.

Directed by Fredrik Hiller.

Sweden, 2010.

Rated 7 of 10.

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