I was aware of this 2009 movie REYKJAVIK WHALE WATCHING MASSACRE (retitled HARPOON: WHALE WATCHING MASSACRE for us ignorant Americans) because it’s an Icelandic movie that has that title and then Leatherface himself, Gunnar Hansen is in it. Sounded like a spoof, I thought, but it’s not. It certainly has humor in it, but so does that other movie Hansen is most famous for. This is a solid, legit horror movie, with an extra layer of meaning if you’re a TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE obsessive like me.
I finally watched it for a different reason: the screenplay is by the Icelandic writer Sjón, a.k.a. Sjón Sigurdsson. He grew up with Björk and wrote some songs with her (including the Oscar-nominated “I’ve Seen it All” from DANCER IN THE DARK), and sometimes performed with the Sugarcubes under the name Johnny Triumph. But also he’s a poet, novelist and screenwriter, and after decades of all that he finally caught my attention this year by co-writing THE NORTHMAN with Robert Eggers. That’s still my #2 movie of 2022 so I figured shit, I oughta watch his horror movie.
Like many in this genre, it starts with some young people having fun. Annette (Pihla Viitala, HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS) and her friend Hannah (Ragnhildur Steinunn Jónsdóttir) are tourists at a bar in Reykjavik where the band Dr. Spock are playing (though if my ears aren’t deceiving me, Hannah seems to be under the impression this is Sigur Rós?). Hannah accepts drinks from some older dude who claims to know the band, and later they’re drunkenly stumbling to his apartment. When Hanna drunkenly leaves with the guy and Annette goes back to the hotel because they gotta get up early for the whale watching trip they signed up for it seems like she’s being the safe one. But of course, you’ve seen the title of the movie. Hannah made the right call.
The next morning Annette goes on her own and joins this international group of tourists on a small boat called the Poseidon. Hansen plays the captain of the boat, wearing a very comfy looking sweater. He seems to be dubbed, and definitely has an Icelandic accent, which seemed weird while watching, because I didn’t know he was born in Reykjavik and lived there until he was five. But it works. (It’s a small but important part.)
Before we even see him there’s a definite TEXAS CHAIN SAW homage: this young guy Anton (Snorri Engilbertsson) hassling people trying to sell them wood carvings of whales, much like the hitchhiker trying to sell people photos. Anton is definitely supposed to be mentally challenged, which is never how I read the hitchhiker, but their gestures are definitely similar. And like the hitchhiker he seems friendly but turns hateful when left behind.
The other guests on the boat include three grey-haired middle class ladies who stick together, a nice younger woman named Marie-Anne (Miranda Hennessy, JOHNNY ENGLISH STRIKES AGAIN) who was supposed to be on her honeymoon but her fiance died, a Black man named Leon (Terence Anderson, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS) who I believe is American, a rich Japanese couple who don’t seem to like each other, and a very drunk Frenchman named Jean Francois (Aymen Hamdouchi) who will cause a deadly accident that gets them all into trouble. With the captain mortally wounded and his assistant Bjorn (Thor Kristjansson) abandoning ship to cover up an unrelated crime, they get stranded and have to be “rescued” by a family on a whaling ship who consider them “catch of the day.”
Here’s where I really perked up: just as the TEXAS CHAIN SAW family bemoan automation in slaughter houses ruining their livelihood, these psychos are former whalers bitter about “Green Piss” and everyone involved in outlawing whale hunting. They’re introduced ranting about it while gobbling down giant sausages of unknown origin. The mother (Guðrún Gísladóttir, THE JUNIPER TREE) says “These American assholes have turned our government into a bunch of whale loving sissies.” And one of the sons says, “Yeah, brother, once Icelanders were vikings, brave hunters of these dirty stupid sea monsters. Now, we are nothing but crybabies.” But they seem to cope by hunting humans, chasing them with harpoons, and commanding them to “sing like a whale.”
The scenes and characters aren’t one-to-one enough to consider this a CHAIN SAW remake, but it’s very clearly and intentionally taking the premise and adapting it to the Iceland setting. What this tells me is that THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE is a classic story and just like SEVEN SAMURAI it can be retold in different cultures and eras.
In both CHAIN SAW and REYKJAVIK we have these exaggerated portraits of families with multi-generational businesses endangered by societal change. They’re too backwards and fucked up to evolve so they dig their heels in and force their perverse notions of tradition, heritage and (more here than in CHAIN SAW) religion on others.
But you’ll notice that the whale watching boat is also run down, and there’s talk of their business also being too invasive to whales, so for all we know they’ll have to find new jobs some day too. Or be stubborn and commit a massacre.
The mother is the head of the family, but maybe just because the father is dead. The rapey-est of the sons constantly talks about him as “Der Fuhrer” (according to the subtitles), and also about Jesus stuff. These guys are also really xenophobic – they complain “They should never have let them into the country, those fucking foreigners” because said fucking foreigners had the nerve to fight back when being attacked by local cannibals. And they’re explicitly racist, which is something they’ve really avoided in TEXAS CHAIN SAW movies, as much as it would fit with the setting. Maybe Icelanders are more honest about themselves than Americans.
CHAIN SAW does leave a little room to laugh at the cluelessness of the young outsiders from Austin putting their noses where the locals aren’t gonna like it, even though they’re the ones we root for. REYKJAVIK does this sort of thing with actual tourists. They do show that Iceland isn’t all boater yahoos by starting in the punk club (not that those people are charmers).
I’m not gonna say the tourists are as bad as the whalers, but they aren’t exactly enlightened. The ladies fetishize Leon and call him a “black panther.” There’s all kinds of misogyny going in all directions. And seemingly cool Marie-Anne turns out to be an asshole when she realizes Leon is gay.
There’s a motif of people not understanding each other. Marie-Anne takes Leon protecting her as a sign that he’s into her. The ladies hear Nobuyoshi (Carlos Takeshi) call his wife a bitch and try to tell him off, but he doesn’t understand and seems to think they’re having a pleasant exchange. Annette is overly polite to disgusting comments from Bjorn, seeming to assume they’re a cultural misunderstanding. And the biggest misunderstanding/racial profiling incident is – ENDING SPOILER THIS PARAGRAPH ONLY – the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD style ending for Leon. The Coast Guard arrives and he keeps one of the killers at gunpoint for them, but they assume he’s the threat and shoot him. (Unlike Ben, he gets to fire a shot as he drops and blow the motherfucker’s head off.)
There is some chasing, hiding and skirmishing on the boat, and it rarely feels like stuff you’ve quite seen in other horror. We’re used to seeing young women running around in cut-offs being terrorized – it’s much more unusual to see a very normal 50-60ish lady in nice clothes climbing into an oil barrel to hide. And there’s a memorable scene where one of the tourists tries to swim away, and one of the killers goes and pulls a tarp off what turns out to be a harpoon gun. Wants to know if he’s still got it.
One thing that’s unlike the original TEXAS CHAIN SAW: they do make sure you see the gore with your own two eyes. Happily over-the-top at times, entire heads exploding, neck stumps squirting and what not, a bit of a Peter Jackson vibe.
The most enjoyably questionable good guy is Endo (Nae, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, Twin Peaks), long suffering assistant to the rich couple who gets her boss (Miwa Yanagizawa) to pack her clothes with flammable materials and light herself and the mother on fire (nice fire stunt and burn makeup!) because “Miss Yuko, we must kill them. Kill them all! Right?”
Admittedly I think this is a racist depiction, considering she mutters something under her breath about her grandfather being a kamikaze, but I just think it’s funny that she doesn’t do it herself, she convinces her asshole boss to do it, that she smiles after it happens, and that she continues to be fascinated with fire (committing some justifiable arson later on). Also I like when Jean Francois calls her the c-word so she takes a break from escaping to crush his foot. I respect her.
But poor Annette just can’t catch a break in this movie. In her first scene she gets in the middle of a drug dispute in a public restroom. Then a bird shits in her hair! She doesn’t wake up in time, has to leap onto the boat from the dock, falls and scrapes her knee. Then somebody pukes on her foot. Then she’s assaulted before they even run into the murderous family, and when they do one of them picks her out as the one he “wants,” hangs her up and smears blood on her breasts. Just terrible.
Later she’s trying to escape and finds her phone just as Hannah – who is having coffee with some pretentious dudes talking about how whale watching is for “idiots and fascists” – tries to call her. Annette is whimpering and wiping blood off her face and Hannah says cheerfully, “Hey! How are you?” Great joke.
And shit, after Annette finally gets away on an inflatable escape raft she gets attacked by a fuckin orca! This is a good movie, you guys. I have to recommend it.
Director Júlíus Kemp had two movies before this – VEGGFÓÐUR: ERÓTÍSK ÁSTARSAGA (1992) and BLOSSI/810551 (1997) – but nothing since. Too bad. The good news is that Sjón has one other movie for me to check out and it’s one I already wanted to see anyway – he co-wrote that Noomi Rapace joint LAMB. So there’s gonna be a weird sheep-headed baby in my future. Possibly with viking references.
other cross-cultural adaptations:
the Italian version of YOJIMBO and the American version of FISTFUL OF DOLLARS
the American version of SEVEN SAMURAI
the space version of SEVEN SAMURAI
the American version of GOYOKIN
the Japanese version of UNFORGIVEN
the Chinese version of BLOOD SIMPLE