Horror Film Review: Thelma (2017) / by Neal Auch


Norwegian director Joachin Trier's horror film Thelma is a wonderfully restrained mood piece -- kind of a queer art house version of Brian De Palma's Carrie.  The titular character is a young woman, away from home for the first time for college, who falls for a fellow student named Anja.  We learn early on that Thelma comes from a repressive religious family, and much of the drama during the first act comes from her feelings of shame around her sexuality.  Like Carrie, Thelma has psychic powers which become more and more pronounced as she explores her sexuality and identity, free from the constraints of her parents' home.  Trier wisely never clarifies the exact nature or full extent of Thelma's powers until the final few scenes of the film.  I won't spoil too much, and the ending of the film certainly leaves room for interpretation and discussion, but I will say this: for me, the final few scenes of the movie definitely cast Thelma and Anja's relationship in a troubling a new light.  The ending happens so quickly and the key moments pass with such subtlety that the full force of the film's conclusion only really settled in for me some time after I had left the theatre.  Discussing this film with my spouse afterwards, we both found that we had to reconsider our sympathies or Thelma, and also our distain for her overbearing father.  (In fact, on reflection I'm not even sure that his staunch religious faith is sincere...)  It's a fascinating horror movie which leaves lots of room for discussion; I'll surely revisit this again in the future.

Setting aside plot, I need to ramble on a bit about how much I loved Thelma's ominous atmosphere and slow building tension.  I am so happy to see so many films getting made in the last few years which blend art house sensibility with horror genre elements.  This is hardly a new development but movies like The Babbadook, It Follows, and The VVitch have certainly brought attention to this kind of film making and I couldn't be more pleased.  Dear film makers: more art house horror!

Finally: since this is, after all, a page about photography, I should say something about horror photography in relation to horror film.  I'm endlessly struck by how varied the horror film genre is, encompassing not only art house flicks like this one, but also comedies like Evil Dead II, and depressing torture pieces like Martyrs, and cheesy slashers like the Nightmare on Elm Street films, and self-aware meta-films like Scream or Cabin in the Woods...  All those films share very little creative DNA, but all deal with the themes conventionally tackled by horror, and all share certain genre elements.  By contrast, the genre tag "horror photography" is typically used to describe  a much narrower set of images and is often viewed as something quite apart from the kind of "fine art" photography one would see in museums.  (Have a quick look at how narrow what comes up under "#horrorphotography" in Instagram as compared with the diversity you'd find for "#landscapephotography" or "#fineartphotography" if you don't believe me.)  Part of the reason I have taken to using the term "horror photography" for my own work, despite the fact that much of what I do doesn't necessarily slot neatly into the kind of work usually associated to the term, is because I would like to challenge the narrowness of the genre.  I very much think that horror photography should be more like horror film or horror literature.  I plan to write about this in rather more detail in the near future, but it seems (more or less) topical so I couldn't leave this post without making a quick comment.