DVD Review: The Juniper Tree

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Slow-burning Icelandic Folk Horror.

Bleaker than Disney adaptations, this version of a Brothers Grimm fairytale is an overlooked film that viewed from a twenty-first-century perspective is a much-needed antidote to Twilightified narratives.

Director Nietzchka Keene was originally in Iceland on a Fullbright scholarship to make a different film when she decided to jettison the project and bring the dark Grimms story to the screen.

Keene’s melancholic and austere film evokes the story’s unsettling tone without being too slavish in following the original text. Wisely choosing to be free with the source material, the director relocated the story to Iceland. Removing the narrative from its original Germanic setting and placing it in a new historically specific context gave it a grounding which would have been resonated with Icelandic audiences. Trimming the story’s more fantastical elements, the director was committed to communicating a sense of plausibility.

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Recording a then vanishing folklore tradition, the Brothers Grimm fairy tales were originally written for an adult readership. Sanitized by publishers and Disney screen adaptations, the original versions of the tales are dark and disturbing explorations of a society’s social, cultural, psychological, and psychosexual fears. Nietzchka Keene had studied the narratives and wanted to wed their commentary on female sexuality with a study of Icelandic folklore traditions in the period immediately after the nation converted to Christianity.

In Icelandic folk tales, the divide between the worlds of the living and dead is not firm and fixed, deceased family members return to issue warnings or tempt the living into tasting death’s embrace. Nietzchka Keene’s changes to the Grimm’s narrative incorporates this strand of folk literature. Adding the ghost of a deceased mother to the story accentuates the already palpable sense of unease.

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Filmed in the summer of 1986, the film seemed fated to rot in an archive. Lead actor Bjork’s propulsion to internationally successful recording artist resulted in funds to complete editing being made available and the film was released in 1990.

Self-consciously meshing contrasts, the film demands total concentration. Its commitment to historical authenticity is deliberately offset by the decision to get Icelandic actors to record their dialogue in English. Filmed in stark monochrome, the dramatic beauty of an Icelandic summer has never before seemed so menacing on screen.

This Nordic Folk Horror is worthy to be placed alongside The Wicker Man, BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas, and Witchfinder General.

The Juniper Tree is available to order from Amazon.