"Calm down, that’s better, good girl," says the male voice heard playing (along with sounds of a woman in a state of extreme distress) on a visible cassette tape at the beginning of Thale – and so this latest feature from Alekasander Nordaas (Sirkel) seems to be declaring itself from the outset as torture porn.
Moments later the film shifts into generic territories of a more comedic bent, and viewers might be excused for wondering if they are watching Norway’s answer to Sunshine Cleaning as we are introduced to a pair of amiable slackers in biohazard suits cleaning up the house where a dead woman has been found “more or less stuck to the floor”. Or at least one of them, Leo (Jon Sigve Skord), is cleaning, while his buddy, hilariously named Elvis (Erlend Nervold), vomits repeatedly into a bucket. After all, Elvis is just there as a favour to his friend, whose No Shit Cleaning Service is short-staffed.
The duo is called out to another job, this time out in the woods where the body of an elderly man has been found, lying outside his home and long dead. Clearing the outhouse, Elvis discovers a well-hidden door leading to a basement complex full of out-of-date food tins, creepy anatomical illustrations, a bath, and a cassette recorder – and as he plays the tape-recording that opened the film, a naked young woman emerges from her hiding place. This is Thale (Silje Reinåmo) – mute, starving, clearly traumatised, and bewildered by the presence of two kind strangers in her dark, underground cell.
Now, it would appear, we have entered the realms of Michael or Chained– a Fritzl-inflected horror story of child abduction and imprisonment. In a way we have, except that by this point, through a carefully modulated set of disorienting misdirections, writer/director Nordaas has primed his viewers to expect the unexpected – and as Leo and Elvis hang around waiting for the police to arrive and gradually uncovering (through the old man’s tape recordings and other, more unconventional means) the strange foundling’s backstory, the unexpected is precisely what is delivered by this low-budget, high-ambition rewriting of local ancient folklore in a modern idiom. Its closest filmic analogue is Switzerland’s first horror title Sennentuntschi or, from much closer to home, Troll Hunter – but Thale is very much telling its own tale.
Packed into the lean 76-min running time is some very slick handling of disparate genre materials (and freaky CGI), as well as a neat paralleling of Thale’s hidden status and the two men’s reticence about their own problems, as though concealment defined not just the indigenous mythology but also the national character. So it seems appropriate that these two benign cleaners should be responsible for opening the doors, letting in some air, and throwing light upon Norway’s repressed identity. Thale may be concerned with, amongst other things, atrocious abuse, but the essential goodness of Elvis and Leo ensures that the film remains miraculously sweet-natured.
Thale is out on DVD on 25th March in the UK