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Tribeca Film Festival 2024 – The Damned ★★★★



Released: 2024

Director: Thordur Palsson

Starring: Odessa Young, Joe Cole, Siobhan Winner, Rory McCann

Set in 19th century Iceland. The Damned is a spine-tingling, atmospheric, psychological horror reminiscent of The Woman in Black as it relies on folklore, superstition, paranoia and good old-fashioned jump scares. The film tells the tale of 19th century widow Eva, played by Odessa Young, who is based on a remote fishing outpost as the owner of a fishing boat navigating a crew. Eva bears a huge responsibility for her crew which increases when a split moment decision, on a fishing expedition, comes back to haunt her and crew. First time feature director Thordur Palsson has thus crafted an impressively eerie, morality tale within this remote, mountainous setting which excites and unnerves in equal measure.

The bleak Icelandic setting adds to The Damned’s overall sensation of creepiness as the snow capped mountains barely provide enough daylight and as such Eva’s fishing crew is immersed within perilous conditions to navigate. Therefore, the film’s premise is simple but, it examines the inner workings of the disparate crew, who rely on each other for survival, hinting at their connections or differences through looks and gestures. Plus, its taut runtime, coming under 90 minutes, must be commended with minimal exposition but large amounts of emotion throughout the film. The sparse dialogue is just as moody as the environment with tales of Norse mythology and unusual circumstances impacting the crew. Palsson is unafraid to embrace the horrific elements of such folklore and ghost stories with some visceral scenes that are not ideal for the squeamish. Yet, Palsson’s strong directorial vision will cause audiences to question their own eyes and whether seeing is indeed believing within such a harsh, cold setting. The Damned’s simplicity is also its beauty. Allowing audiences to be mesmerised by the stunning cinematography, which unveils such breathtakingly gorgeous set pieces that it could almost be mistaken for a promotional piece for travel to Iceland.

As such, the film embraces multiple genres in highlighting the fishing crew’s desperation to source food within the depths of a deep winter and the levels of self-preservation that may naturally come to the fore. The fear of the unknown is rife in The Damned with the crew’s loyalties tested as the dynamics begin to shift beyond their control.   Still, it is pleasing to see a woman at the helm of the crew to provide that level of cohesion to achieve their mission. However, all of Eva’s actions and decisions are silently questioned due to the rarity of seeing women boat owners during those times. Parallels can be drawn to modern day society and politics as the film identifies the implied inequality directed towards Eva which is still a challenging dynamic present for women leaders today. Additionally, the film also speaks to the decisions made by small communities, to protect their own provisions, against an incoming tide of refugees arriving by sea on to their land, which will also be relevant to present day audiences.

Palsson has therefore permitted the remote scenery, inspired by the 1800s Westfjords of Iceland, to be prominent with that juxtaposition between the serene, barren but simple beauty of the wintry surroundings and an eventual fear to sleep, when the minimal daylight fades. There are effective, suspense-filled jump scares in places that will also terrify audiences and invoke suspicion. Fear, anxiety and the different personalities of the crew do rise to the surface, although some characters’ arcs feel rushed, as they face these adverse circumstances whilst at sea and indeed The Damned could operate well as a play. Additionally, audiences may be reminded of John Carpenter’s The Thing, which followed a similar structure, where paranoia amongst a crew ruled supreme in isolated, snowy settings. Inevitably, the question may arise as to whether cabin fever, hysteria, hallucinations or supernatural elements may be in effect within such chilling, scary conditions but Palsson wisely chooses to leave answers to such questions deliberately ambiguous.

Ultimately, The Damned is an extremely haunting and captivating film. Proving there is no need for extreme blood and gore to convey horror, that will neatly slot in to the elevated horror canon occupied by Ari Aster et al. One piece of advice though – it is best not to watch The Damned alone at night! Yet again, Palsson’s ability to scare, with simple visual effects, is a testament to The Damned’s superb storyline, sharp editing and unsettling, star quality performance from Young. It is certainly a film that is destined to become a cult favourite whilst also showcasing Icelandic folklore.

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