Crimson Sunset


Iceland / 1977 / Icelandic

Directed by Hrafn Gunnlaugsson

With Helgi Skúlason, Róbert Arnfinnsson, Rúrik Haraldsson

crimsonsunset4Cobwebs may be old, abandoned spider’s webs, but they are still spider’s webs. Couldn’t an insect still get itself caught up in the wispy swaddling, genetic memory of the attendant carnivore bedeviling its tiny brain? Floating innocuously above us they appear empty, or damning evidence of neglect. But to the smaller lifeforms flying about, they are still traps, the stuff of nightmares.

On the human scale, vestiges of past ways of life that were unceremoniously abandoned dot the planet forlornly. Like the cobwebs, their desolation suggests the arrival of a predator, however unlikely. Crimson Sunset begins with a few shots of empty warehouses and houses, static shots of waiting that will become the nexus of the film. It moves progressively closer to civilization – an old man’s boat traveling across a bay and finally, a shabby gas station cafe in the middle of nowhere.

It’s far from deserted; layers of life collide, palpitating with different sounds. People pass time in the seclusion of the place and people just pass through: a young couple tries to finish their coffee but their baby cries so much that they have to leave; a jeep of frat boys pulls up and they horse-play, oblivious to all others; an employee tries to scarf down a quick bite to eat in the back room. In short order, we get a set of hilarious visual observations – no ominous foreshadowing, just the varied feelings of being in transit, of escaping the city and glimpsing the stuck-in-the-mud places from a time before they started working on Route 1.

Two paunchy, 40-something men get out of a car and one of them heads straight for the station’s narrow bathroom. Inside he lifts up the toilet seat and momentarily looks at it, deciding it’s too dirty even to urinate into, and promptly leaves. This short, immaculate scene is an evocation of every rest stop and truck stop in the world. He goes around the corner to relieve himself, looks up while doing so, and sees he’s face-to-face with a shirtless man eating breakfast in his kitchen.

Still from 'Crimson Sunset'If this is to be a horror film, it offers many possible options of who will become the focal characters. Ordinarily, the teenagers in the jeep, blaring loud music would be the most obvious victims to follow, in their diminishing numbers, for the rest of the film. But we veer off the road, going instead with the two middle-aged wasters (all bell-bottoms, plaid leisure suits and bald spots) as they pass the jeep, through the driving rain, on a seldom-visited path.

Their trunk packed with camping supplies and extra clothing, they arrive at a harbor town that looks deserted. They don’t have tents or rain gear with them, though, as they plan to shelter in one of the many now-uninhabited houses gathered in hollow clumps all throughout the coastline. It seems, as one of the men observes, when the road was built connecting the town to the highway, all the inhabitants finally realized they could leave – and did so in a hurry. As the two tourists look around for another soul, their presence dislodges an old man from one of the buildings. They charter his services to take them, in his fishing boat, to an even more remote ghost town where they can post up and unwind.

Dóri, the balder and paunchier of the pair, tells his friend Helgi about the town they’re headed to, formerly with a population of 200, based around an old herring factory. He knew it in childhood. First the fish left, then nearly all of the people. There’s something post-apocalyptic about the old Iceland that’s fallen into disrepair, how it can’t (maybe due to the low quality of its materials and the relentlessness of the elements) hold history, even if it wanted to. In reality ends of the Earth aren’t dramatic waterfalls or abysses into lava; they are dull, crumbling, fractal, colonized by concrete monoliths of uncertain utility.

The old man will return in a few days to pick them up. In the meantime they have no plans, just to be completely alone in their own sophomoric jokes, free to break windows, drink continuously, and imagine that there are available women around. Helgi jokes that they will find the fortune stashed away by the herring company’s CEO before leaving, and use it to open up casinos and brothels. The detritus-strewn town seems an apt playground for his and Dóri’s impoverished imaginations.

With the stripped-down decadence and cynicism seemingly only possible in the 1970s, the film is like a puddle of blank water reflecting a future in which people have nothing left but candlelight, booze and buckshot (and their horrible memories). There’s also a cliched haunted summercamp backstory: the last inhabitant of the village was an old woman who was only discovered, dead, after days of decomposition, and no one knows what happened to her son, a “halfwit”. It was assumed he drowned.

Still from 'Crimson Sunset'Thus the film’s grimy surface has suspense smeared onto it, as the men drink themselves into stupors and masochistically prod open nightmarish visions from the past. They stumble through the rotting levels and and staircases of the old buildings, going into slapstick scenes with the shotgun that they vowed not to go near while drunk. A missing sweater becomes ominous. Pieces flake off the buildings and reverberate across the harbor.

Inebriated, Dóri begins leaving the gate open on his haunted past. He tries to tell his friend a story, but Helgi keeps heckling him. It’s a story about his teenage summers on a farm, how he discovered that the man he was staying with had an unknown son, another archetypal “halfwit” kept chained in the basement. And when the young Dóri crept downstairs to see if the source of the strange noises was really there, he couldn’t bring himself to help the poor captive.

Once he manages to finish his story, trailing off with a suggestion of his own abuse at the hands of the farmer, his friend is silenced by revulsion. While it seems off in the distant past, we feel that we can hear every sound as he relates it with contemplative bitterness. And it plants a presence in the silent walls, a feeling rather than a literal monster, that is able to grow and change shape.

As the tension shambles upward, the men get progressively drunker and less coherent. We’ve identified them as marked victims – of what, we can’t quite decide. And what we can’t decide upon can’t hurt them. But we begin to worry that they won’t even see or feel it when their horrible fate arrives. And, as elements of Dóri’s story burble out of him, a little at a time, he seems a man who has hurt inwardly, and in secret, more than any movie psycho could inflict. He’s vacant, but still scared of what he’s seen, and thus the torment survives.

crimsonsunset2Completely out of left field, Crimson Sunset visualizes – and just slightly – a vortex of human desolation, that which is arrogantly self-sustaining, an invisible force, like gravity, that outlives even the people who suffer it. And the film is so efficient that it can even waste nearly two thirds of its hour-and-change with the main characters’ drunken assholery. It finds a surprisingly rich well of impressions, mainly made of varying depth and distance, of claustrophobia and emptiness, there being little atmosphere to speak of.

The soundtrack is amazingly crafted. Instead of fireside crackle or the rustlings of animal spirits, there are plinks of water from deep within artificial caverns, shouts in the echoing darkness that could be Helgi and Dóri (or possibly issuing from their memories), and the incongruous nattering of their portable radio. Meanwhile the daylight stays the same throughout – not the endless sun of summer but rather a gray purgatory that goes nowhere.

The characters and the place give off an air of decay. It’s not a setting of foreboding but of incomparable melancholy and palpable regret. And we aren’t in allegorical non-space from Sartre; the empty villages all around the country are a real facet of life, neither picturesque nor meaningful. Their poignancy resides in their sullen muteness – like dolmens – their refusal to give out much of a backstory.

There’s no poetry in the decay, only a profound silence, as that which is man-made gets picked apart by chaos and rain. The bare-boned Crimson Sunset taps this silence, drawing hallucinations out of it, and shows us virtually nothing. We keep waiting for at least a Repulsion or Knife in the Water moment, a sliver of gratification that gives the waiting some significance, but writer-director Gunnlaugsson is far too canny for that.

crimsonsunset3Yes, it’s a horror movie that gets completely sidetracked. In spite of that, and its arbitrary title, this obscure, Icelandic TV movie from the ’70s has a psychological purity to it, and at that, a vocal clarity that sees it triumphing even against its scant runtime and no doubt extreme budget (it was made two years before the Icelandic Film Fund started). That it settles on childish and repulsive clods as its protagonists, rather than the more conventionally-used archetypes, detours it off of the genre’s worn-down byways and onto a whistling heath, fading blithely into nothing. It lends the film a texture not normally felt, and the fact that intoxication is central to its overall ambiance makes it distinctly Icelandic, distilling the numbing passage of long winters to long summers, the boredom and misanthropy.

Like in a Becketty Friday the 13th, the characters have put in mild effort to arrive at a place where they simply wait, suspended in an uninflected space whose isolation will devour them, all the while being hounded by sudden, contrived slasher-film edits and noises. What they’re awaiting – with easily more eagerness than the audience is – is a Voorhees of the mind, a visage of their innate qualities of neglect and destruction made real.

Gunnlaugsson milks the readymade setting, its collapsed bridges and rust-bucket boats slowly dropping into the sea, but he is squeezing emptiness from emptiness. The frame wraps around gargantuan cement chimneys, fills vast spaces invaded by radio signal that boils over and is dispersed into the soundtrack. So weathered are we by the gloomy surroundings, salted by the sea breezes that peel paint and chip rust off the houses, that Dóri’s horrible anecdote endures like an open wound, ripe and fermenting. We feel as raw as the two men, worn down by the melancholy of the place, and just as susceptible to the resulting visions. Their defenses peeled and chipped away by deterioration, they have been compelled to the last place on Earth – which, it turns out, is the only place on Earth.

Crimson Sunset is, in a sense, reflects a society that modernized abruptly and unsentimentally, not updating its small farms and settlements but simply vacating them en masse. In a relatively short time, Iceland went from being among the poorest countries in Europe to becoming Scandinavian in every way, from being an outpost to a central transatlantic character.

Gone is the “arctic stare” of isolated hicks that W.H. Auden described in his travels there in the 1930s. But the premodern is, rather starkly, still there, everywhere you turn, and the film references cruelty and blight that isn’t so much as a generation removed, and at that, merely turned away from rather than addressed. Meanwhile Medieval Iceland persists in people’s minds. When talking about the tied-up boy in the cellar, Dóri recalls a similar character from one of the ancient sagas. Perhaps the simultaneous sadness and allure of these cobwebs, both figurative and real, are still capable of ensnaring those who wished to escape them, to draw them, inexorably, in.


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