Saturday, August 4, 2018

Draugasaga (1985) (TV)

... aka: Drauga Saga
... aka: En spøkelseshistorie (A Ghost Story)
... aka: Ghost Story
... aka: Powder Game

Directed by:
Viðar Víkingsson

At a TV studio, photographer Matti (Guðmundur Ólafsson) snaps some photos of a blonde model as the lights start flashing on and off. When he develops the film, the image of another red-haired woman briefly shows up. Soon after, the picture goes completely black and, when the negatives are checked, the redhead's image doesn't show up at all. The redhead seems to be a well-known apparition familiar to late night workers at the studio who claim she haunts the place. Graveyard shift night watchman Runolfur (Þorsteinn Hannesson) is one of several who can vouch for her existence. Luckily for him, he's about to get some help as arrogant college medical student Sonny (Kristján Franklin Magnúss) has been hired on to help with the night shift duties. But his new helper doesn't seem at all concerned with Runolfur's ghost tales, nor his advice to always take the stairs unless he wants to be trapped in the studio's unpredictable lift with the ghost.

Also frequently working late in the studio is make-up artist Elsa (Sigurjóna Sverrisdóttir), who's obsessed with old Hollywood glamour, classic movie stars and WWII era "spook fashion." She's particularly obsessed by a photograph of her beautiful, red-haired grandmother, who was "Miss U.S. Base 1942" and either died, immigrated to America or mysteriously just vanished into thin air a long time ago. Her fate being completely unclear is something that fascinates Elsa, as does the fact her mother (Kristbjörg Kjeld) claims she's dead yet refuses to discuss the cause of her death. Elsa and Sonny the new nightwatchman start hanging out in the vacant studio at night. She dresses up as her grandmother and puts her skills to use transforming Sonny into a vampire for a little role-playing fun. The two become lovers but their after hours dress up games start going a bit too far.

Becoming a little too enraptured by the fantasy Elsa initiated, Sonny decides to start dressing up as the redheaded ghost to "haunt" the studio. Elsa even helps him with the make-up and costume, at least at first. It works. After making an appearance in the photographer's studio, the haunting / ghost makes the front page news. While busy changing bathroom towels on each floor, Runolfur forgets his own advice and hops on the elevator. It becomes stuck and Sonny, impersonating the ghost, paces in front of an open crack in the door holding a sledgehammer, which ends up giving the old nightwatchman a fatal heart attack.

After Runolfur's death, Elsa refuses to help Sonny get into ghost drag, but he continues on without her. Confessing that "the guise has really taken hold of me" and that he thinks that's "fantastic," Sonny plots to scare the life out of the next nightwatchman (Rúrik Haraldsson) the studio hires and eventually turns on (and attacks) Elsa. But there's also the issue of the actual studio ghost, who apparently doesn't take too kindly to being impersonated.

Perhaps due to the short running time (just 67 minutes), there are some pacing issues and poor scene transitions here. There's little easing into Sonny's sudden slip into insanity. He's normal one minute and psycho the next and it's rather poorly handled. That said, this does have other stuff to enjoy, like some amusing dialogue, gritty texture to the photography and a well-designed, though only briefly seen, ghost. A number of the horror and suspense scenes work really well too, especially the bit taking place in the elevator and when the leading lady is pursued through the streets at night by the (real) ghost.

With younger characters who seem to want to live in the past and older characters who are having a hard time adapting to (or understanding) the present, this seems to be trying to say something, though what that is I'm not exactly sure. There are lots of allusions to the WWII era, including a photo of FDR, 1940s music and clothing and some weird fantasy scenes of Elsa imagining herself as her grandma with her American G.I. lover. The ghost is jokingly referred to as "the specter of communism" at one point due to her red hair. Communism itself was at its peak in Iceland during WWII, with popular support around 20% according to a 1958 article from Foreign Affairs.

Meanwhile, the older characters show disdain for how foul mouthed and promiscuous today's youth are, look at punk hairstyles with disgust and sigh "It's all gone queer on the television these days" while watching a music video of David Bowie performing "Boys Keep Swinging" in drag. So what does it all mean? Well, that's for you to figure out. It's 3am. I'm feeling more Ambien than analytical right now.

This was made for Ríkisútvarpið (RÚV) which, from my understanding, is kind of like the Icelandic version of PBS and the movie itself was mostly shot in their studio. The only other pre-1990 Icelandic genre films I'm aware of are Blóðrautt sólarlag (1977; "The Crimson Sunset"), Vandarhögg (1980; "Whiplash"), Húsið: Trúnaðarmál (1983; THE HOUSE), Djákninn (1988; aka "The Deacon of Dark River") and the same director's Tilbury (1987). There aren't very many, all but one were made for television and none were officially released with English subtitles.

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