Sweden (2018) Dir. Ali Abbasi
Scandinavian folklore has been inventively fanciful but also rather dark compared to many other nations, which might explain why their horror stories always have a distant but palpably needling sense of plausibility about them. Or maybe their grey landscapes simply encourage bleak thoughts?
Tina (Eva Melander) is a woman with a rare facial deformity giving her a Neanderthal like appearance, but also an incredible gift for being able to smell people’s feelings such as guilt or fear, which helps her job as an airport security guard. Passing through her post one day is a man, Vore (Eero Milonoff), with the same facial condition as Tina, and he makes it a point to return to see her again.
Meanwhile, having stopped a man with child pornography on his phone, Tina is enlisted by the police to use her ability to track down the makers of the videos, yielding some early results. Vore continues to ingratiate himself to Tina, renting the guesthouse at the back of the home Tina shares with friend Roland (Jörgen Thorsson). He then drops a huge bombshell on Tina that changes her entire outlook and attitude towards her life and hr place in the world.
Border is an adaptation of a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the man who gave us the sublime vampire tale Let The Right One In, which should set alarm bells ringing as to the sort of macabre nightmare he has in store for us this time. Director Ali Abbasi must have paid close attention to the stunning film (original) version of Right One employing the same low-key approach of silence and atmosphere over excitable shocks.
From our first look at Tina with her thick forehead, small steely eyes and almost fang like rotten teeth, sniffing like an animal at the passersby in the airport security checkpoint, it is clear this isn’t going to be an ordinary tale. It’s not even moments later that Tina is called an “ugly bitch” by a disgruntled teen caught with booze in his luggage, yet most people tend to avoid eye contact with her if possible.
Naturally, this frames Tina as a standard social outlier yet beneath her thickset features is a kindhearted person with an affinity to animals, even insects, and is devoted to her ailing father (Sten Ljunggren), in a home with dementia. Vore’s presence, albeit with creepier undertones due to his comparative embracing of his difference, teases a Shrek-like fairytale romance between two compatible misfits, and that is what we get.
At least at first. Vore is more intense, less amiable – he eats insects rather than saves them like Tina does – and enjoys freaking people out with his looks, but the animalistic attraction between the two is hard for Tina to resist, leading to what most rank as one of the more uncomfortable to watch sex scenes in cinema. And before you say it, no, this has nothing to do with their looks!
I’d rather not spoil the big revelation Vore drops on Tina that explains their obviously exclusive kindred spirit but it changes the complexity of the story in many ways. At first we find ourselves submitting to the contrivance of their being two people with the same rare condition in the same proximity but as it starts to make a difference to Tina’s life, there are more secrets coming out forcing her to question her existence.
Being an unconventional horror story means the shocks have to come from somewhere else rather than where the audience expect them to come from – in this instance, it is the “ordinary” world. Tina’s job is to sniff out people hiding something behind their every day, respectable appearances, so it makes sense the people we should be worried about are the one who look just like you and I.
The paedophile subplot picks on a prevalent issue but the script isn’t afraid to push the limits of our imaginations with the depths the perpetrators go to for their depraved kicks. Deliberately upsetting and galvanising in its content, this isn’t about shocking for shock’s sake, this plays into the narrative of Vore and Tina’s secret and the manifesto that drives Vore in particular. He is able to manipulate Tina into sharing his vision but this is short lived when Tina makes another, more disturbing discovery.
Since I’ve kept the key details out of this review for spoiler reasons, it probably makes the plot sound confused and disconnected but this isn’t the case. The message that is being conveyed is clear enough through Tina’s presence alone, that we shouldn’t judge everyone by their appearances, and even the most respectable and ordinary looking people can be utter monsters underneath.
Vore and Tina also stand out as totems for those deemed lesser members of society, the teased, the tormented and the marginalised – their union, despite built on dubious pretences, gives hope to the least of us after a lifetime of being told “there is someone out there for everyone”. Even with Vore’s askew values and penchant for embracing the outré, he and Tina are both victims and this is their right to reply but since this is a horror story too, so of course it is going to be disturbing.
Eva Melander and Eero Milonoff spent around four hours a day having prosthetic masks applied to their faces and a superb job is done by the make-up team too, though it is really the latter’s performance behind hers that is the genuine wonder of this film. There is little flexibility to the masks yet Melander is able to convey a huge range of emotions with nuanced movements and gestures, we soon forget her unusual looks.
Despite a couple of shared facets with Let The Right One In, in no way is Border a clone. It’s a film that is unsettling, sometimes for the right reasons, in revealing the hidden ugliness of beauty and the hidden beauty of ugliness.