This write up for the Norwegian film Thale might ultimately end up being a ‘provide your own ranking’ type of review – a first for me. I don’t want this to see like a cop-out at all but I feel like this is a film that is not universal by any means. It couples an interesting creature mythology with a wonderful buddy dynamic between the two male leads to create an interesting and ultimately charming story. However, the fantasy aspect and its relationship to the folklore of it are really the primary focus and not necessarily the horror underpinnings. So because of this, I could see a lot of folks really not get into it because it plays much more like a fairy tale than a horror/suspense story.
After viewing, I got to thinking about various myth and legend retelling and how the truer, rawer origins of them tend to get whitewashed over time and sanitized for children’s ears and eyes. Thale, instead, gets after the more honest and potentially dangerous aspects of fantastical stories and the creatures that inhabit them to weave its story.
The film centers around two friends, Elvis (Erlend Nervold) and Leo (Jon Sigve Skard) who work as crime scene cleanup workers either through an independent agency or through the police force as a contractor. I was unclear on this. Anyway, they are called to a scene to cleanup after a dismembered body found at a remote hunting cabin. The interplay between the two men is awfully good – you immediately get the ‘well worn’ friendship feeling from them. But like any relationship of this kind, there are things that aren’t said and aren’t shared and so for these two men, the intimacy of their friendship is clouded by secrets unshared but inevitably, eventually revealed. For them, it is a estranged daughter and a potential lethal illness, respectively.
Once they venture to the basement of this cabin they are met with a disturbing array of medical equipment, monitors, pumps, tubing, a ton of medical books and diagrams, cans of food of all kinds and a bathtub filled with a milky white fluid and three tubes leading into it. In the course of trying to figure it all out they come face to face with Thale (pronounced tall-ehhye), a human looking woman (played by Silje Reinåmo) who emerges from the tub much to their surprise. After an initial sizing up on both parts, Elvis and Leo determine it is best they call it in, unsure what to do. Thale meanwhile watches these two closely, cautiously and soon is trying to dig into some long expired cans of food. They fetch her fresh food from their vehicle and it becomes clear (to both her and the viewer) these two are not a threat while all the while the mystery of who or what she is and why she is there unwinds in small increments.
It is here that the film makes its best choice and also the most frustrating mistake(s). While Leo is out getting food from the car, it becomes clear something is watching him from the forest. He doesn’t know this but we do so as things start to reveal themselves (including a series of recorded sessions from the owner of the cabin and Thale, medical diagrams and a large animal tail in the freezer), we’re faced with the question of whether this long detainment was a scientist with good, kind intentions studying and nurturing this creature, or, was it a defensive act to prevent a more dangerous thing from happening. I found this to be compelling and really well handled – tense and unclear. Coupling with the eerie feel of the place and the uncertainty of it and I was wrapped with attention as I really didn’t know where they’d go with it.
Ultimately, the reveal of her true path to the present takes a lot of the air out of this tension bubble and shifts the focus away from Leo and Elvis and Thale and onto a force of more human origin now threatening the three of them. This man versus monster role reversal is perfectly fine and I was rooting for them but I liked the lack of clarity and the suspense of her true nature much much better.
In the waning moments of this shift in the story and final act, we’re given a true shot of these creatures (beyond just the quick flashes from earlier) and while the design of them is awfully cool, the execution (via CGI) is not that good and is distracting. I hate harping on this because I recognize it is a small budget and understand that replacing human legs with long, spindle-y ones in any way that would look convincing would cost a lot of money. But that said, the mythology is so interesting, the three main actors are so good that between the plot shift and the CGI monsters, I just felt like there was a magnificent final act that got lost in the shuffle. It still wraps well and is interesting in a number of ways but the tonal change and the effects issues were frustrating after a nice slow burn of a buildup.
After viewing, I did some curiosity research into what the creature Thale is (a huldra) and also looked into how director Aleksander Nordaas took the mythology and worked it into his story. There is a charming personal aspect to this that I think motivated all the hard work on his part to make it happen. All in all, the filming style and look of it, the performance of the three main leads and the heart of the thing are very strong. The execution of the CGI effects and the plot shift are, in a word, aggravating. Ultimately, if you can hang with the fantasy feel over horror (although there are some horror elements in it) and can forgive the CGI issues, then I would say my 3.5 fits well. If those things would be frustrating to you, then it is more likely 2.5 or lower. I leave it to you.