Queering the void: how Erlingur Thoroddsen’s Rift transforms horror cinema

Miranda Wilkie

Edited by Abigail Eardley

Art by Raj Dhunna http://rajdhunna.co.uk/

TW: Sexual Violence

Horror cinema is a genre that, with its subversive and confrontational intentions, is arguably ripe for queer filmmaking: yet as a queer horror fan it is rare I find myself represented on screen. In many horror films, academic readings of character’s queerness are often reduced to subtext. While queer characters are admittedly not totally absent from horror cinema, their sexuality often forms the basis of the horror itself. Depictions of canonically queer characters tend to form two extremes: ironically mannered villainy or predatory perversity. A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) became a cult film with queer audiences due to its fairly explicit homoeroticism, including a high-camp portrayal of leather-clad ‘daddies’ in a gay bar. More recently, however, queer representation has shifted markedly. While visibility of queer communities within mass media increased at the turn of the century, the subsequent backlash from religious and conservative groups reignited the spectre of the sex-crazed, corrupting queer figure that first originated during the AIDS epidemic (Bronski, 99). Several New French Extremist horror films, such as Haute Tension (2003) and Irreversible (2002) exploited this undercurrent of fear, featuring characters whose same-sex desire is voracious and violent to the point of explicit homophobia.

Since the millennium, queer characters or themes in horror cinema have been particularly sparse. Recently, a glitch that originated on Netflix causing the horror film The Babadook (2014) to be filed under “LGBT+ movies” sparked a meme across social media declaring that  “The Babadook is queer”. Twitter and Tumblr users turned the meme into a humorous parody of queer cultural discourse, for example twitter user jpbrammer tweeted “openly gay and with an affinity for hats and drama, the Babadook was the first time I saw myself represented in a film.” While clearly satirical, this does speak of a desire for more visibly queer characters in horror cinema; characters whose bodies are not places of homophobic angst.

Erlingur Thoroddsen’s icy chiller, then, is a welcome and refreshing addition not only to queer cinema but also to the horror canon.  Though Thoroddsen does explore the darker side of gay life, specifically premature sexual initiation by exploitative older men and online deception, the central horror in Rift (2017) is the circularity of time, as residual trauma from a failed relationship manifests itself again and again. Gunnar (Björn Stefánsson) and Einar (Sigurður Þór Óskarsson) have recently broken up, and Einar, still pining for the happier days of their relationship, retreats to his family’s isolated cottage where the pair had spent a holiday the previous summer. After receiving a troubling phone call from Einar in the middle of the night, Gunnar reluctantly decides to visit the vulnerable Einar. The two men are then troubled by a series of strange occurrences involving a shadowy hooded figure: consequently, Gunnar feels unable to truly leave the cottage, and Einar, behind.  Einar’s unpredictable behaviour and latent feelings of regret, anger, and sexual tension which are always threatening to bubble over (quite literally, in one scene, where Einar nearly throws a pan of boiling water at Gunnar) are also a source of misery for the pair, as the break-up is examined and re-examined, old wounds scratched and reopened.

Rift is full of repeating dualities and temporal ambiguities, which lend themselves well to the film’s disorientating atmosphere. Thoroddsen plays with narrative contradictions and thematic pluralities, blurring the boundaries of reality and fantasy. The film’s English title refers to both the treacherous volcanic countryside and to the rifts forged in the protagonists’ relationship, while the Icelandic title “Rökkur” takes its name from the deserted cottage but also translates as “twilight”, evoking the tipping point between day and night; light and dark. The two men’s pasts intertwine and time bends round; Einar is stalked by a hooded figure driving a red truck who is the doppelganger of the older, predatory man that lied about his appearance online and raped a seventeen-year-old Gunnar. Similarly, Gunnar sees visions of a lost young boy and Einar’s childhood imaginary friend. These phantoms that haunt the pair prove the real horror of a relationship ending; that our lives are irreversibly changed by the people who have influenced them.

To match the film’s chronological obscurity, metaphor plays heavily into the film’s action: physical violence frequently stands in for psychological damage. Memories are misremembered and misinterpreted, and this unresolvable confusion leads to the trauma at the centre of the work. The elderly man in a red van who stalks the pair appears to be a manifestation of the gang-rape Gunnar endured in his youth, while the disappearing little boy hints at a trauma in Einar’s childhood. Einar recalls an incident in his upbringing of sheep falling to their death, trapped in the rifts in the volcanic rock, which pre-empts the film’s horrific final scene. Thoroddsen masterfully repeats these specific scenes, dialogue, images and shots, in order to imbue the film with a disquieting sense of déjà vu.

A real boon to the film are the impressive performances Thoroddsen commands from his leads. Both actors, but particularly Stefánsson, are revelatory in their roles, especially as they carry the majority of the film. Stefánsson’s blisteringly raw confession of the rape, and how the conflicting feelings surrounding it has led him to largely blame himself, is astonishingly well performed. As a survivor of sexual violence myself, his admission to Einar that “[the rapists] probably remember it differently than I do” I found simultaneously heart-breaking and infinitely relatable. This nuanced discussion of consent is particularly relevant in the current burgeoning discussion of rape culture and the “#metoo” movement.

Shot with a tiny crew on a shoestring budget, and relying on the atmospheric horror of the stark Icelandic landscape rather than expensive visuals or grizzly special effects, the film owes a great deal to the European auteur cinema of the 1960s and 70s. A definite inspiration is Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 thriller Don’t Look Now, particularly in the film’s use of the colour red to create associations of threat and terror, such as the red truck and Einar’s red jacket, which stand out against the obliquely grey landscape. In a Q&A session after the screening at the IRIS Prize Film Festival in Cardiff, Thoroddsen identified the influence of British gay drama Weekend (2011), and this is certainly evident in the naturalistic depiction of a gay couple, and the clear, spontaneous chemistry between the film’s two leads. The highly stylized visuals and the deep, existential terror, meanwhile, evokes Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) and Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin (2013), elevating the film’s sense of prestige which sets it apart from the majority of recent years’ utterly unmemorable horror film releases.

Rift sets a real precedent as media created by and for queer people while managing to avoid the meagre nods to identity politics or even the out and out queerbaiting – the practice of hinting at, but then not actually depicting, a same-sex romantic relationship between fictional characters (Barber) –  of mainstream genre pieces such as Supernatural (2005-present) or Sherlock (2010-present). The film forms part of a refreshing wave of recent films such as Moonlight (2016), Thelma (2017) and Call Me By Your Name (2017) which offer context for its queer characters, fleshing out personas which feel alive, vibrant and raw, whose queerness is important and real but not the sole aspect of their lived experiences. It deserves real critical but also academic recognition as a landmark: not just as a work of national cinema in the burgeoning Icelandic film industry, but also in its revelatory navigation of horror away from the tired clichés of queer life and the stereotypical horror trope of gay panic.

Works Cited

Barber, Laurence. “What Is ‘Queerbaiting’, and Is It a Problem?” SBS, 4 Feb. 2016, 14:33, www.sbs.com.au/topics/sexuality/article/2016/02/04/what-queerbaiting-and-it-problem.

Brammer, John Paul. (jpbrammer) “openly gay and with an affinity for hats and drama, the Babadook was the first time I saw myself represented in a film”. 19th April, 9:26pm. Tweet.

Bronski. Michael. A Queer History of the United States. Beacon, 2015.

Thoroddsen, Erlingur, director. Rift (Rökkur). Breaking Glass Pictures, 2017.  

About the author

Miranda Wilkie is a recent graduate of English and French studies at the University of Warwick. She is interested in queer representation in media, socialist political theory and international cinema.

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