For me, taking the Boy to go see a Finnish horror movie has a real “we’re back!” feeling to it. (For purposes of this review, we’ll set aside the question of whether Finland actually exists.) It helps that Pahanhautoja is odd and interesting and tragic, very contemporary and has a somewhat ballsy take on “is this literally happening? or is this a metaphor?” (See also Northman, The.)
A beautiful 12-year-old girl, Tinja, lives with Mother and Father (that’s all they’re called) and her brother Tero in a lovely little home in a tract in the woods, with their lives being a perfect Instagram drama staged by Mother. Played by Sophia Heikkilä who channels the ancient primal spirit of Karen, Mother must have everything perfect all the time: Matching clothes, expensive and fragile furnishings, overt demonstrations of strong sexual attraction to Father, champion gymnast daughter, and so on. So, in the opening scene, when a crow flies in (another Northman parallel) and smashes up the joint, we’re not surprised when Mother kills it.
Tinja is awoken later that night by the cries of the crow who, it turns out, is not dead but limping along in pain with a broken neck. The upshot of this odd, supernatural sequence is that Tinja ends up with a suspiciously large egg she nurtures in secret. The suspiciously large egg grows suspiciously larger, and Tinja becomes increasingly clever about hiding it while we (and she) learn more about the true dysfunction in her family.
At the end of the first act, the egg hatches.
This is important, cinematically, for a lot of reasons. You could do an entire movie, e.g., where Tinja hides the egg that grows bigger and bigger until…well, in that kind of story, the hatching could be the climax and would tend toward an entirely metaphorical reading like, say, Rhinoceros. In this movie, the egg hatches—with a nice mix of what appears to be puppetry and CGI—and the problem gets worse. So while we’re given prompts to see it as a metaphor for the onset of menses and eating disorders, among other common modern problems, it’s the movie’s misguided characters who make those interpretations, only to be taken by surprise by a literal monster.
This monster has a tendency to try to eliminate anything or anyone that slightly annoys Tinja. I mentioned earlier that Tinja is beautiful, and this is important. Early on she gets a new neighbor her own age, who is as beautiful if not more so than she. And who is better at gymnastics. And who has a yippy dog who barks when Tinja’s trying to sleep.
You get the picture.
Mother, of course, is the real monster in this movie. Besides demanding the feigned perfection, she utterly disregards her son, and her apparent love for her daughter—well, let’s digress here for a moment. One of the first blog posts I ever wrote (back in 2007) was on the line between parenting and friendship. Many arguments can be had on where the line might be drawn, but we can probably all agree that enlisting your daughter in your adulterous schemes is well over where any non-narcissist would draw them.
Interestingly, Mom’s lover (who quickly moves from secret to right out in the open) is the only male in the movie worth a damn. A widower with an infant child, he is the polar opposite of the nebbishy Father—a strong, sensitive handyman who is the only adult in the movie who deals with Tinja with any level of compassion or understanding. He lives in an old, rustic farmhouse that Mother cheerfully describes as a “fixer-upper” and at which she brings Tinja to spend the weekend. Mother, it would seem, is preparing to replace her old family with a new one, with Tinja being the only thing she plans to bring with her. And even Tinja’s role is clearly disposable with an adorable new infant for Mother to hyperfocus on.
Even with Tinja resenting her mother’s impending dissolution of the family and her subsequent replacement, she’s not a monster, and this is ultimately what powers the film. We empathize with her. She’s trying hard to please her mother, whose constant demands on her make it impossible for her to forge any friendships elsewhere. Nonetheless, she’ll sacrifice the approval she craves to do the right thing. She’s just a kid with a situation that’s gotten out of hand.
I’m not sure how I feel about the ending, which is a step up from “oh my god, I hated the ending”. It did not have a “twist”, for which I was grateful, but I felt like maybe there should have been some kind of coda. “What happens next?” is necessarily not a bad place to leave the audience, though, and almost any extra material after the obvious climax of a horror movie
Overall, a worthy watch and, as noted, one that really made things feel “normal” for your moviegoing correspondent. Sadly, the ten-day period that gave us seven interesting movies would be followed by three weeks of nothing and the local AMC being shut down. At least today we would have a chance to see the latest Ma Dong-seok movie.