Studio: Odmarden Filmproduktion
Director: Klas Persson, Karin Engman
Writer: Klas Persson, Karin Engman
Producer: Klas Persson, Karin Engman
Stars: Elna Karlsson, Thomas Hedengran, Oscar Skagerberg, Lina Hedlund, Urban Bergsten, Nina Filimoshkina, Ralf Beck, Matti Boustedt
Swedish swordsmen looking for a lost missionary in a notorious forest uncover a curse connected to a young woman in their search party.
Partly thanks to Marvel movies, many already know key legends of Norse mythology like Odin, Thor, Ragnarok, and Frost Giants. Less familiar Icelandic folklore tells tales of “draugr” or “draug,” essentially the equivalent of a vampiric Viking zombie. These undead creatures stalk the search party at the center of the same-named Swedish chiller, although past sins plague everyone with figurative ghosts that are equally haunting.
“Draug” takes place one thousand years ago. After a missionary goes missing in a forbidding forest known for cutthroat thieving, Hakon makes it his mission to find his former ally with whom he once wielded swords. Drunken sheriff Kettil joins Hakon’s journey. Prone to more than a bit of brigandage, Kettil relishes the opportunity to intimidate and interrogate local farmers possibly plotting with rebels looking to rid the countryside of Swedish lords like himself.
Aside from Kettil’s slave Deja, the only other girl in the group is Nanna. An orphan raised by Hakon, Nanna hails from the northern region where they are headed. In her pocket she keeps a key as a keepsake from a childhood she doesn’t remember. In her mind she keeps traumatic flashbacks hinting at hidden horrors in her unknown origin.
Before reaching their destination, Hakon’s party encounters alarm in the form of raving witches, ambushing archers, and shadowy shapes not everyone sees. All of these omens are connected, as the phantom corpses coming toward the party have an agenda that weaves several sinister secrets together.
For their first feature film, co-writers, co-directors, and co-producers Klas Persson and Karin Engman build “Draug” using minimal money and maximum old-fashioned elbow grease. You wouldn’t necessarily know it though. Exquisite exterior settings, impassioned performances, and quality craftsmanship squeeze out an illusion of impressive scope only occasionally belittled by the budget.
“Draug” teaches a valuable lesson all independent filmmakers would do well to learn. Namely, making a fright film on a small scale mostly with favors, friends, and family doesn’t equal an excuse to take the path of least resistance. Persson and Engman told this particular tale not because it was easy, but because it was hard, and they knew it would be an opportunity to create a worthwhile experience out of a relatively straight story.
To pump up production value, Persson and Engman repeatedly anchor the camera in water, stage sequences in chilly outdoor nights, and task the cast with setting up shop in a forest for a one-month shoot without a flushing toilet. Any self-starter indie willing to expend the effort it takes to recreate 11th-century Sweden over, let’s say a simple slasher inside a house, automatically earns admiration for sincere dedication.
Although ambition doesn’t fully outgrow what this consistent commitment is capable of, there are moments when the movie plays like weekend warriors performing a cosplay reenactment. “Draug” includes caving, rafting, archery, swordfights, and horseback riding. While remarkable in terms of achievement, none of the actors are formally trained in any of the above, and their inexperience shows when the camera conspicuously tries to hide it.
A bloody battle between Hakon’s party and a band of rebels gets its choreography about 80% of the way toward earning suspension of disbelief. That’s close enough for many viewers to dismiss the missing one-fifth and convince individual imaginations to submit to immersion. Sticklers for detail may become hung up on how close the camera gets during an assault of arrows where framing feels like everyone is only inches apart despite the supposed scope of the scene.
Filming with a lot of natural light in overcast forests gets the better of the crew’s technical capabilities too. “Draug” doesn’t look its best on a big screen, with certain shots showing the warts of grainy blurriness from being underlit.
Most moments are predominantly of the conversational, atmosphere-setting variety. Hakon, Kettil, and the rest travel from one location to the next asking questions, ascertaining lays of the land, and having encounters to establish relationships that come into play later. Momentary stillness in momentum while soaking in sights of cobblestone, cabins, and farmland can give “Draug” the feeble feel of an “Elder Scrolls” fan film focused on an optional DLC side quest.
A low budget, Swedish-language slow burn set 1,000 years ago can be a hard sell for an audience to eagerly climb aboard. Even given its organic flaws however, “Draug” retains a sharp edge of distinctness as supernatural suspense stories go, with the period setting providing ample panache. An amusing recurring gag involving spitting after uttering a certain insult, Thomas Hedengran’s (Sweden’s Corbin Bernsen) portrayal of blustery blowhard Kettil, and visually ghoulish incarnations of undead witchiness amplify plentiful entertainment value.
Accomplishing much more than most slender spook shows do, “Draug” blazes a memorable trail in several subgenres at once. Its patient smolder and guerrilla style may slice at its ability to be broadly appealing. Yet its rich textures of throwback tones and application of Nordic mythos over familiar themes make room for alluringly eerie moods.
Review Score: 70