SIFF 2018 Review: Valley of Shadows


In recent years, Scandinavian books and film have gained entrance into mainstream USA popularity.  Many of these works are characterized by a gritty and somber presentation, a darkness of mood, a paucity of verbiage, and a slow but relentless unfolding of story.  I would not call Valley of Shadows ‘gritty,’ but otherwise it fits into this mold.

The atmosphere or ambiance of the film is, in fact, so powerful that it qualifies, in my opinion, as a character in its own right—a character on an equal setting with the young boy who plays the starring role.  The interplay of the darkness and the shadows, clouds and moonlight, agitated tree limbs rapping against the windows, the frenzy of the storm-whipped pines that edge the mountain forest; fogs, mist, rain that confuse the senses; the screech of an owl, the shocking crack of a branch, the howl of an animal deep in the woods—all these make up an atmosphere that is alive and threatening.

Students of film could use Valley of Shadows as a tutorial in how to bring a setting alive.  Last year at the 2017 Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), a film that used setting as character in a similar powerful way was the Irish “hallucinogenic eco-horror” film Without Name.  Two recent Hollywood films that also succeed in setting/atmosphere-as-character are Paramount’s Annihilation and The Quiet Place

Of course, a successful film requires more than a powerful ambiance and compelling setting.  Here the main character is a little Norwegian farm boy named Aslak, whose older friend shows him the carcasses of sheep that have been torn apart by some kind of beast—and according to the friend the beast is a werewolf.  Aslak is encouraged to enter the menacing forest to search for the beast, but he is soon frightened away.  However, when his dog disappears in the forest, Aslak must face his fears if he is to save his dog.

SIFF 2018 describes the film as a “nightmarish, gray-hued Scandinavian fairytale.”  The questions as you watch are:  is this a horror film?  A thriller?  A mystery?  A dark children’s tale?  A film about a child’s fears?  How much is real?  How much is imagined?

As a viewer, if you watch this film with an open mind, you should enjoy it as much as I did, but just do not expect typical American interpretations to define what you see.

This movie was reviewed as part of coverage for the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF 2018).

By Karen Samdahl
Related categories: Movie Reviews, SIFF