Lionsgate // 2009 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // March 29th, 2010
Fear what you can't see.
We've now reached the fourth year of the After Dark Horrorfest, with eight new "Films to Die For." The individual quality of the films has varied dramatically over the tenure of the series, but, if nothing else, these films have received distribution that may otherwise never have come. Here, Lionsgate has tapped the foreign marked with Hidden, a little Norwegian gem that hits the high end of the quality scale.
After two decades away, Kai Koss (Kristoffer Joner, Rottenetter) has returned to his hometown to deal with his mother's death. During his time away, he has managed to deal with the horrific abuse he suffered as a child. But when he arrives at the creepy old house he grew up in, he realizes that some things you never forget and old demons rarely stay dead.
Director Pål Øie begins Hidden (Skjult, in Norwegian) as a typical ghost story. The film opens in 1989 as a car stops at the side of a deserted road. As a young blonde boy gets out to pee, we see a dark-haired boy racing frantically through the woods. He halts at the road just in time to see a semi plow through the car. As the blonde boy watches his dead family burn, the two children's eyes lock for only a moment before the dark-haired boy flees into the darkness of the woods. Flash forward twenty years to the returning adult Kai, who looks really put out at having to deal with his mother's death. He doesn't give a reason, but he makes his feelings clear about her when he crushes a finger on the corpse. Worse for him, Kai has to go out to his childhood home, but it's his and he has to deal with it.
This old mansion is one creepy place, sitting huge and alone on a hill in the forest, the kind of place where nobody can hear you scream. He's skittish as soon as he enters the house and, as he goes from room to room, he flashes back to his childhood and the torture he suffered at his mother's hands. He sees her face in mirrors and hears her whispering to him. Completely freaked, he decides on a hotel room instead of staying there. That's when things turn real weird. People start turning up dead, the police suspect him, and he's pretty sure that little blonde boy is the real killer.
Øie takes an interesting tact in Hidden. Right out of the gate, he gets to work on the shocks and jump scares, all of which are relatively effective because we don't know anything yet. As the story starts to take shape, those elements give way to a more psychological horror; one that deals with the effects of child abuse, the power of memory, and the empathy that comes from shared experience. The change only helps the plot, allowing it to become more of a mystery with a sensible ending, while still maintaining some level of ambiguity. Kai is not very reliable, so there are plenty of questions at the conclusion. Our belief in what we see makes a difference to how the film plays out and what the final scenes mean. Both sides are equally valid and lead to varied interpretations, so there's a fair amount of repeat value.
Øie's direction is economical and tight, and it helps Hidden excel in every aspect. The director builds the plot parallel to the suspense, allowing the audience to stay at the edge of their seats without having to relax while the story comes together. By the time we know a single character's name, the film is already going full speed. As it builds and we start to figure things out, the film slows down and the plot takes over. There are still a few scares and a gratuitous eye gouge, but the murder investigation becomes more important.
Led by Kristoffer Joner, the performances are better than you normally find in horror; they help significantly with the transition. Kai begins the film with a very hard heart. He is difficult to like but, as we learn what his mother put him through and he starts having to cope with it directly, his anger turns into despair and the character becomes completely sympathetic. He dominates the film, but the supporting players are great, too. Cecilie Mosli (Orps: The Movie) is strong as the police officer heading up the murder investigation. Even though much of the evidence points toward Kai, she feels a connection to him that tells her to trust him. She is believable and they have good chemistry together. A special nod must go out to Norwegian pop star Karin Park, who stars in her first film as the enigmatic hotel manager. She doesn't have a whole lot to do, but her mysterious beauty continually keeps Kai on the edge. Her presence feels like something out of a David Lynch film and, while I don't know that her character replaces the Audrey Horne fantasy in my head, nobody's ever come so close.
The landscape has some of that Twin Peaks feel, as well. The forest is a sinister character of its own and, like that hotel manager, it is beautiful to look at, but harbors secrets and conceals truths. A massive waterfall plays an important role, both in the plot and as a disorienting factor. We see the falls in all its majesty at one point, but the same scene is painted on the wall of Kai's hotel room. A speaker is attached to the wall that pipes in the roar of the water. As Kai gazes onto it, it is sometimes hard to tell where we are. It's a great effect and it looks amazing.
All that gorgeous landscape is captured nicely on the DVD from Lionsgate, a bare bones, but technically solid release. The anamorphic image looks great, its wide aspect ratio clear and sharp. The film is generally quite dark, but there's a lot of color in those shadows. The transfer handles it all nicely. The surround track is equally strong, with a good balance of dialog and sound effects and heavy use of the surround channels.
There's one thing that I just can't shake about the plot. If Kai has been gone for two decades, how is he so recognizable? More than that, though, he is told right when he gets to town that people are really angry with him for coming back. Given what he suffered, it's extremely hard to swallow that everybody would blame him in any way for what happened. You have to forgive a lot in horror film plots to enjoy the genre, but this animosity is such a dominant factor, and the film is otherwise so strong, that the problem sticks.
That one issue aside, Hidden is a smart, effective, well made horror entry; one of the best in the four years of the After Dark Horrorfest.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Norwegian)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* After Dark Horrorfest