Written and directed by Sohail A. Hassan and produced by Jannick Raunow, Whispers from the grave (original title: Lad de døde hvile, meaning “Let the dead rest”) has been in planning and production since 2015. The story comes from an idea by Hassan og Kristoffer Jacob Andersen, and deals with certain teen topics from the angle of Jimmy, a young man who lives with his dysfunctional father. In high school, Jimmy keeps to himself and is considered weird because of his overblown interest in heavy metal, horror and the occult. His mother meant the world to him and since her death, he has been obsessed with contacting her soul through black magic. At the local cemetery he gets dangerously close, but is interrupted by something very powerful. His new classmate, Amir, persuades him to impress the school’s most popular girls, with a secret occult seance. The four of them accidentally unleash an evil force. Only Jimmy can sense what’s going on. The evil force wants to raise the dead, including his mom. Frantically, he tries to convince the others of the impending doom, but ends up alienating himself even further. He realizes that he can not prevent it alone. In order to stop the dead, he must first learn to coexist with the living.
Whispers from the grave grew from a desire to make an old-school genre film in a country that does not make many of them. -In our opinion there are too few genre films in Danish cinema. There is too much realism and not enough magic and chills. Even werewolf films are getting more rooted realism than real genre films. That’s why we wanted to make a film with the effects at the centre point. That does not mean that the story is a mess or that the characters don’t have depth, but that the important parts are thrills, magic and horrors, the makers said during the preproduction of the film.
In an email to Nordic Fantasy, Sohail A. Hassan went into further details about the film’s genre placement, the making of his feature debut and the situation of Danish horror films -I wanted to do a movie in the vein of the 80’s fantasy-comedy-horror movies I grew up loving like Gremlins, Goonies, Weird Science and even E.T. that is somewhat scary if you’re a kid. I came up with the idea before Stranger Things became a phenomenon. Somehow those stories always spun around kids or teens doing things they shouldn’t be doing. I also wanted it to have some edge, so I chose to set the story around young adults to include some scarier elements and non-offensive nudity/sex, and in that way making sure that all the kids want to see it.
On the topic of realism in horror or fantasy films, Hassan has a specific vision for his films: -The movies I mentioned as inspiration [deal with social problems in direct ways]. It is a very important part of making a good movie, no matter what the genre, to give the characters and story depth. The audience has to buy the premise and believe in the characters [if they should] get sucked in. If we don’t care about or identify with the characters, the horror won’t work that well. That being said I find realism boring and escapism fascinating. Substance is important, but my movie is unapologetically a genre film with a lot of focus on form. It primarily aims to entertain. It’s fun’n’games. That’s what I call “Pure Fiction”. I’m not inspired by Ingmar Bergman, but by Lucas, Spielberg, Zemeckis, Carpenter, Cameron, etc.
With so much focus on the genre and Hassan’s love for special effects and adventure, how will we see this in the film? -Ohh, I’ve done everything I could to deliver on all those accounts, as far as the limited budget allowed. We have a lovely animatronic monster, we made most of the effects in-camera and added a few VFX in postproduction. It’s a thrill ride, but it will also give you “the feels” hopefully. The coolness factor is very important to me. My movies must have many really cool moments.
Hassan has spent the last 30 years trying to get public financial support for entertaining genre films with very little success. His producer did actually get some public funding for Whispers from the grave, but that was regional funds from the province where the film was set. -I’ve been to the Cannes filmfestival six times and spoken to [many] like-minded filmmakers from our neighboring countries and it seems to be the same problem there as well. So I’ve stopped wasting my time and energy and now it’s just about getting enough private finances and getting the movie done. I’m not bitter or angry in any way. That is just the way things work. I want my movies to be fan dependant. It’s all for the genre fans, so we need to unite and support each other.
None of the Nordic countries has ever had a long, stable horror film scene to speak about, not on the same level as most of the local art, comedy or drama films anyway, films that have been made constantly for almost a century. -Honestly, from the many years of studying the business I find it’s much harder get public financing for entertaining movies that people actually want to see, than for art movies that can preserve our fine Scandinavian film culture. Even though a lot of people believe it’s the opposite. And then there is a system in place where you have to fit the mold and follow a certain path to become eligible for public funding. It’s not that difficult to figure out. Get into film school or make a few serious non-genre shorts, win prices at established A-level festivals, then you are eligible to be one of the two new directors each year that will be considered for feature film funding. Then you [will be] sought by the established production companies as [their] money maker. I have seen many talented directors follow these steps with great success. [Nevertheless] I truly believe that there [ought to be] public support for small budget features in any genre, as long as people show a passion and have proven themselves through earlier works.
Here Hassan points to what seems to have been the normal situation for hardcore genre directors in the Nordic countries. Has nothing improved in Denmark the last few years? -In my opinion, generally speaking, we genre fans watch and appreciate movies in a very different way than the established film community. They believe that we have poor taste and are satisfied with rubbish. That we [lack talent]. They couldn’t be more wrong. They consider realistic movies about understanding life, emotions, human behaviour and sorrow and pain to be real art and frown upon mere entertainment. Unless it is done by a very established director or has Oscar winning actors in it, then they [change their minds]. The production companies have failed with the last many attempts at Danish horror and they don’t [think] there is a Danish audience for it. I would have to agree that these movies have not been good. I feel that this is because the makers were not experienced enough at making horror and should be allowed to refine their skills on more projects. I also know for a fact that this is because people with no sense of horror or genre movies have had their say in how these movies [were] made in order to get public support.
By now Hassan is an experienced film maker, but a feature film is not the same as shorts or documentaries. -We had a lot of struggles during shooting even though we had planned ahead and worked very professionally. In hindsight my ambitions were too high considering the short 19 day shoot, but my crew of more than 80, experienced as well as newer talents, worked like crazy to make it happen. It was insane. I almost turned my own crew into zombies. After the shoot the troubles continued, because we ran out of money. My private economy tanked, I had to sell most of my comics collection and I was so drained for energy at times, I thought I would die.
-A wise man and friend, Lars C. Detlefsen (head of the manuscript department at the Danish Film School for more than 15 years and complete genre fan), told me not to make any more shorts. He said; everyone has made a short. Make a feature film and then they can’t ignore you anymore. I foolishly thought a feature would be like making my next three shorts at once. I was wrong. It was like making 30 shorts. But I can’t thank Lars enough. I definitely used everything I’ve learned from earlier works and used every talented friend in my network to make this behemoth for the past four years and I learned so much from the experience. I have to give a huge thanks also to my producer Jannick Raunow and my DOP Adam Thulin, without whom I couldn’t have shot the movie.
Assuming that directors that move into new fields are hungry for more, what would be Hassan’s dream movie, if getting to choose one topic or one creature from Danish mythology, and given an unlimited budget? -I know that Danish and Scandinavian history have a lot of really interesting magical and mythological creatures, but I haven’t really studied them besides the ones in this movie. I love the way they are used in the Swedish Jordskott series and I’m looking forward to seeing Border. Making something along those lines would be great, but I would put a lot more action and energy into it. My dream project right now would be my own story about a few ex-marines that battle the supernatural in an haunted castle. With a full budget I would make an extravaganza of in-camera stunts, SFX, pyro, VFX and beautiful lighting, grading, score and sound design. But story comes first, so I will start with that and then seek private funding. I always believed that we are more than capable of doing amazing and great genre films in Scandinavian settings, films that will sell a lot of tickets and be able to [compete with] the American dominance.
The 100 minute Whispers from the grave stars Baard Owe, Sigurd Barret, Danny Thykær, Jacob Hasselstrøm, Razi Irawani, Sidse Kinnerup and Maria Fritsche.
The film is an official selection for the CPH:PIX film festival in Copenhagen and premieres on October 4th, 2018. After that it will enter festivals, with its general premiere to be announced.