Iceland’s Scenery Sets Scandinavian Supernatural Saga Apart

Horror movies are a genre I usually avoid because they’re often too scary for me and give me nightmares. However, Spell’s spellbinding Scandinavian cinematography, shot on location in Iceland, plus good, quirky performances make the well-made feature-length debut of co-writer/director Brendan Walter worth seeing. Benny (Barak Hardley, who has a screenwriting co-credit) is an American cartoonist suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (if you don’t know what OCD is, see “Trump: Lying”). After the apparently drug-related death of his addict live-in lover Jess (Jackie Tohn), the addled Benny impulsively takes off on what seems like a spur of the moment trip to - where else? - Iceland.

Or, instead of flying by the seat of his pants, is Benny really some sort of  reincarnation of a Nordic god or spirit? In addition to all of the breathtaking location shooting at an eye-popping destination few Americans have encountered (I’ve only seen Iceland from the sky while flying to/from Europe and remember viewing volcanoes), Spell ties into Viking mythology. Wandering around Reykjavik, Benny falls in with what appears to be Icelandic occultists. Is it a chance encounter - or all part of some supernatural scheme along the lines of Rosemary’s Baby?

Out on the town with Inga (Icelandic actress Birna Rún Eiríksdóttir), she tricks him into getting a tattoo that has some sort of mystical meaning. Although the runic symbol reappears on petroglyphs and the like, I don’t believe its actual meaning is ever explained, which is unfortunate as the image has significance. Back at Benny’s hotel room with Inga he suffers from sexual dysfunction.

(There is a scene of male nudity but in two scenes where this could have been called for involving females, they are covered up in T-shirts. What gives with that double standard? You realize that censorship has been relaxed and it’s legal now to depict naked women too, onscreen? Perhaps, as Steindór says: “Stupid American” with all of your puritanical hang-ups.) 

Inga and her local pals have connived for Benny to go on a sort of eco-tour with the guide Steindór (veteran actor Magnús Jónsson), who is steeped in Icelandic lore, and they embark on a road trip to the country’s outback, ever further from civilization, returning to a state of nature. All hell breaks loose - and viewers are left to ponder: Is Benny fulfilling Nordic destiny? Or are the strange events all taking place in the illustrator with OCD’s turbulent mind? Take your pic, moviegoer - damned if I know. 

Either way fans of horror, supernatural and psychological themes, as well as of offbeat locales and Scandinavia, are likely to enjoy this imaginatively crafted indie. Spell apparently cast a spell on LAFF 2018’s jurors and has, deservedly, won the Festival’s Nightfall Special Jury Prize, Ensemble Cast. And so far, this chilling independent feature hasn’t given your scaredy-cat critic any nightmares or sleepless nights.     

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L.A.-based film historian/critic Ed Rampell is co-author/author of four movie film history books, including “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: