For a nation with a population of just under 350,000 people, Iceland punches above its weight in the world of film. However, it’s always tended to be – as Rift director Erlingur Thoroddsen said in the Q&A following the BFI Flare Film Festival screening of his movie – straight, white Icelandic dudes making the films. Thankfully that looks likes it’s starting to change to include queer voices, with the recent coming-of-age movie, Heartstone, and now the horror-thriller, Rift.
Gunni has recently split it off with his long-term boyfriend, Einar, and has started seeing someone new. He receives a strange phone call in the middle of the night from a seemingly unstable Einar, who says he’s at his parents’ holiday property called Rökkur (Twilight). Afraid Einar is going to do something drastic, Gunni heads off to the remote house to make sure his former lover is okay.
While at first Einar isn’t pleased to see him, after a while it looks like they may be finding some sort of closure, or perhaps even a reignition of their love affair. However, strange things keep happening – a door won’t stay shut, there’s banging in the middle of the night (and not the good kind), and rumours of dark things having happened out in the old lava fields.
I won’t say anymore as Rift is the sort of film where you shouldn’t know too much about it before you watch it. The movie enjoys toying with the audience and getting them to question what they’re seeing. Even as it ramps up the horror elements it wants to get the viewer questions what’s going on – is it supernatural? Are they being stalked by someone? Is it all just going on in their heads? Many viewers will spot things and think they’ve worked it all out, but the film is very good at getting you to second guess yourself by introducing new elements.
It also creates a sense that the geographical area around Rökkur is sort of Twin Peaks meets Don’t Look Now (which Einar’s red coat references) – a place where anything could happen and where things don’t make perfect sense. By the point someone starts thinking they’re hearing the voice of someone’s else’s imaginary friend, it’s creepy but fitting for the world the movie creates.
It’s also a post-gay narrative in a proper horror movie, which is exceedingly rare. Although there have been quite a few gay-themed horror movies, most of them have either made the gayness subtextual, introduced lesbians purely to titillate straight male viewer, or made gay rights/oppression central to the plot (e.g. the serial killer is murdering people because they’re gay). Here though character are gay and the movie that doesn’t shy away from their sexuality and the expression of it, but it treats them as modern human beings and not just as ‘gays’. It allows the film to be unexpectedly subtle about gay relationship issues – such as whether many gay men find it too easy to walk away from a relationship rather than deal with problems when they arise.
It’s also difficult not to be struck by the vistas of Iceland itself, which always seems starkly beautiful but here comes across as oddly otherworldly. It’s partly because things that seem so natural to the characters – lava fields, glaciers, large rifts in the landscape – are unusual for most non-Icelandic people, which ends up amplifying the sense of this taking place somewhere that doesn’t work like the rest of the world.
There are flaws, not least a few too many horror movie moments where someone does something completely illogical, forgets to turn the lights on, or starts freaking out about something before they’ve actually got any reason to be freaked out by it. Even so, it’s effective in building tension, helped by the chemistry between actors Björn Stefánsson and Sigurður Þór Óskarsson who ensure you really want the best for both of them, even though right from the start you know the odds are going to be massively stacked against them.
Overall Verdict: A smartly made and effective gay-themed movie. It won’t please those who like everything tied up with a neat bow at the end of a film, but those who don’t mind falling into an enigma will find plenty to enjoy.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac