Making his feature length debut, writer / director Jonas Matzow Gulbrandsen has created a film so beautiful and haunting it will transport you from your cinema seat to the very heart of a Scandinavian gothic painting. Valley of Shadows – Skyggenes Dal in its original Norwegian – is a piece of cinema so pure in its beauty, you will struggle not to be utterly moved by the visual and aural feast on offer.
At the heart of this slow burning thriller is the taciturn protagonist, Aslak (the phenomenal Adam Ekeli). Living on farmland at the edge of a dense, mysterious forest, his childhood is disturbed not only by the absence of his drug addict brother, but by the alleged presence of a werewolf; currently intent on slaughtering all of the local sheep.
To call this film a horror, at least in the conventional sense, would be to do it a disservice. If you’re expecting to be terrified by an actual physical villain, you are set to be disappointed. This is a film that will unsettle you and get under your skin but there are no jump scares. What makes it so eerie is the lengthy moments of still and calm. And aside from a few disemboweled sheep, there is no gore. In that sense, Valley of Shadows reminded me of Robert Eggers’ 2015 film, The Witch; it will haunt you and stay with you in a way that you can’t quite put your finger on.
Instead, it’s more of a dark fairytale – almost like a twisted version of Peter and the Wolf. Is the werewolf in question real or a physical manifestation of something looming within us? The plot explores a broken family set up and childhood fears. How many of us have gone to play somewhere that both thrilled and utterly terrified us? Somewhere we know we shouldn’t be but are inherently drawn to? That is the purpose of the deep, dark forest in the film. The stunning, sonorous male voice choir that stirs every time Aslak takes a step in between the trees will make the heart race and your skin prickle.
The cinematography and the score are, simply put, breathtaking. You can practically smell the trees and feel the mist. At times, it feels more like a series of truly beautiful landscapes or paintings than a traditional film. The imagery is incredible and often dream-like. For instance, when Aslak finds himself slipping in and out of consciousness, he tucks himself into a wooden boat and floats down a river. The way he was lain out, clasping his tiny hands together, reminded me of a traditional Viking longboat being sent out to sea to burn it’s dead cargo. Cinematographer Marius Matzow Gulbrandsen has created visual that – coupled with Zbigniew Preisner’s stirring score – will leave you in awe at their artistry.
Child actor Adam Ekeli is outstanding. To carry an entire film at such a young age is nothing short of impressive; particularly when your character is near mute. He said so much more with his glacial blue eyes than several pages of dialogue ever could. His interactions with a slightly odd stranger (John Olav Nilsen) lurking at the edge of the forest are easily the most tense and ominous scenes of the film. But again, it’s shot so beautifully. The way Nilsen’s character is framed – the pallid skin against the black hood – reminded me of another Scandi classic; the character of Death in The Seventh Seal.
Valley of Shadows seems like a bit of a love letter to Scandinavian artwork; folklore; culture and cinema. It’s absolutely not going to be for everyone – for hardened horror fans it’s going to be far too much of a slow burn. But it is a film that will manage to unnerve and amaze you at the same time.
Valley of Shadows is currently screening at the Glasgow Film Festival.