Welcome back to Let’s Scare Bryan to Death, where this month we’re talking to Nolan McBride, founder of the Dead Ringers podcast. On Dead Ringers, McBride brings together a panel of co-hosts to dissect “horror movie double features that share similar DNA, yet still have distinct personalities.” Past pairings have included May/Eyes Without a Face, Starry Eyes/The Neon Demon, Halloween/The Terminator, and other films that have some similar narrative elements, but take very different approaches to their respective material (they had a particularly charismatic guest for an episode that covered Bug/A Dark Song).
For our discussion, McBride nominated Taneli Mustonen’s 2016 slasher (-ish, but more on that later) movie Lake Bodom. The film follows four teens as they return to the site of the real-life 1960 Lake Bodom murders, where a group of campers were brutally attacked, leaving only one survivor. Atte (Santeri Helinheimo Mäntylä) and Elias (Mikael Gabriel) seem obsessed with finding out what happened that day nearly 60 years ago, and they convince Ida-Maria (Nelly Hirst-Gee) and Nora (Mimosa Willamo) to join them under false pretenses. But not all is as it seems at Lake Bodom, as Mustonen revels in throwing curveballs at both its characters and its audience. The results make for a pretty wild ride that McBride admits surprised him, as it’s not usually the type of thing that connects with him.
I don't feel like anybody talks about it. I have seen a couple of people championing it over the years, but very, very few… [The filmmakers] pitch it as sort of a slasher, but it's like one of those slashers based on real life, which generally is not my thing. Even though slashers were sort of one of my early-life comforts for horror... I typically like [slashers] silly because, at the time, I was terrified of everything. I wanted something that was going to be jokey, so when I think of things that are like serious slashers today, even though I'm over the point of it being scary... I still prefer campier stuff against “based on real life” stuff because there's enough horrible stuff in the world and I don't need to actually watch those movies. But then [Lake Bodom] popped up on Shudder, and I checked it out and I loved it... Like this year’s The Perfection, it changes movies very frequently. There's a couple of my notes [for the film] that read “Okay, this is a different movie now.” The twists are big enough that they completely re-contextualize what you think the movie is, so I love those sorts of experiences. Maybe the director is being a little manipulative or cheap, but it’s for the express purpose of giving the audience just a total roller coaster experience of a movie.
I’m intrigued by McBride’s comparison of Lake Bodom and The Perfection, because I agree that they both feature some pretty stark narrative shifts. But whereas The Perfection took one too many left turns for my taste, Lake Bodom managed to stay true to its thematic discussion on how we perceive truth. The film springs a bunch of pretty wild reveals on us in its runtime (MAJOR SPOILERS):
The themes of rumors and how they can take on a life of their own helps put the film into better focus for McBride.
When I get to the end of the movie, I wonder if it's a betrayal of its themes for the purpose of telling a fun rollercoaster story. But then I do think it really is cohesive at the end of the day because prior to The Woodsman entering the fray, the story is about high school and teenagers. And it's like a very classic story where rumors spread about a girl, she's got photos that are shared, and then she gets humiliated at school. And so for the first track of the movie, we think it's the boys bringing them out here to sort of explain everything that happened... and so it's almost just like, here's the story about the nature of high school and your whole life being dependent on that. All of a sudden this guy [The Woodsman] just comes in and wrecks it all. I think the way this story ends, specifically coming back to a new group showing up [and talking about their own theories about what happened to Ida-Maria, Nora, Elias, and Atte]... I think both tracks of the story are dealing with the idea of rumors and stories that get passed around, and the power those have, which fits perfectly with this movie that's based off of stories that were passed around about a real murder, so I think it is a lot more thematically cohesive than it appears.
This is especially true within the context of the real-life Lake Bodom murders, as despite a long list of theories and rumors, the case has never officially been solved. Mustonen plays with this by playing with some of those theories to build the plot for his film, while also throwing in some of his own elements that are purely fictional. So by playing within the guardrails of thematic elements of truth versus rumor, Mustonen is confident to play with character arcs and genre elements to blindside us after we’ve come to our own conclusions about what the truth is in this story. McBride sees this as being especially true regarding Elias.
You're making assumptions [about Elias]... he seems like the obvious worst character in the story because he does all these things that play up to a certain stereotype of a man. He even has this stupid conversation about, “Oh, men should be able to have more sex,” and all that bullsh*t, but at the end of the day, we don't know that he's done anything truly bad… [and we] learn that he was Ida-Maria’s boyfriend. So all of his advances [toward her] seemed a little bit more like a guy who is just putting on airs rather than a truly predatory guy (which is always a terrible line for any person to have to decipher). But the movie is letting the audience think for a long time that he is a bad person just because it's not telling us any different. That's what [Mustonen] does a lot. By not giving you information, he's playing with the idea that you're going to fill in those gaps with your own theories and you're playing right into what everyone is doing in this story.
...Another thing I like about this movie is that it constantly shifts who is predator and prey, and it does that shift basically three different times. You think the girls are the prey first, then you realize it’s the boys, then the girls become prey for [The Woodsman]. It's also funny because I do remember at one point, one of the characters said something about “nature's law,” and I was thinking about that in relation to this structure of a natural food chain taking place out in the woods.
But for me, that natural hierarchy replaces “survival of the fittest” for “survival of who’s willing to be more awful.” Most of these characters have elements of their character that are less than ideal. In this way, Mustonen adds a dash of a Tales From the Crypt-esque morality play into the slasher structure. And as things become progressively more brutal, we also get an element of New French Extremity. In particular, we both picked up hints of High Tension in the relationship between Nora and Ida-Maria, which, as McBride and I agree, made for an interesting narrative, but also fell into the same problematic queer horror tropes as High Tension.
Part of why Mustonen may have felt compelled to take a kitchen sink approach to the film in terms of jumbling up a number of subgenres is that, as a Finnish filmmaker, he realized that he may not get many opportunities since the country’s output is so limited.
There's very few Finnish horror films. If you look at Wikipedia, there's ten right now… [Mustonen] did say it almost took ten years to fund the movie, so I think it's just another reason to celebrate it, because we don't have a lot of output coming from that country. I think it's worth shedding a little light on one of them so we can hopefully get them to make a couple more. Because if nothing else... that area where they shot is beautiful for these types of movies. It's got the type of tree without a lot of branches. It's just these tall, empty forests with those “God rays” from the moon coming in. It's a really good atmosphere.
In fact, the atmosphere, along with Mustonen’s ability to bring these seemingly disparate elements together, has McBride hoping to see Mustonen give his own twist to a long-dormant franchise.
[Mustonen] is one of the people I would love to do a new Friday the 13th movie (next to Jonas Govaerts, who did Cub, which is actually really similar). It's just this essentially real-life Friday the 13th with a true crime angle, and so I love that aspect of it. I love camp slashers... [Lake Bodom] represents the line between slasher and the couple of subgenres that butt right up against it. In the first half, it's like a whodunit slasher, [and then] in the second half it’s like your preternatural killer.
While there may be some initial disconnect between the fun, campy nature of the Friday the 13th films and Mustonen’s darker, brutal approach to Lake Bodom, McBride provides some key insight as to how Mustonen avoided letting the film fall into bleak nihilism the way films of the New French Extremity tend to do.
It’s a really participatory experience for the audience. You don't know the motives of these people and you're dropped in after a lot of the [conflict between the group of kids at school] has already happened. [The events of Lake Bodom are] really just the culmination of everything that's happened to them already, and the fact that we don't learn all of that until halfway through is just a really good way to keep us invested in what's going on from moment to moment. They're keeping you so locked in to the moment that you're not thinking of other things. With a lot of movies, I sort of have trouble turning my brain off, so I naturally just start thinking about what's going to happen next and try to anticipate it. And this is a movie where, at least the first time I ever watched it, I couldn't do that.
This rationale strikes a chord for me, as I realize that by making the audience active participants, it removes that voyeuristic element that can make some darker European films like Goodnight Mommy or Martyrs so tough to watch. With Lake Bodom, McBride notes that you’re just forced to hold on and come along for the ride.
I had a friend that I recommended it to and he texted it to me while he was watching it (which is bad form, folks), but it was actually great for me because every ten minutes I’d have a new text saying, “Holy sh*t!” And so I think it is just a movie that really invites the audience to be a part of it and speculate on the story. The whole movie is a giant speculation on what happened [and] certainly invites you to be part of the process, which I think is fun.