While the conventions may change somewhat from culture to culture, the appeal of a good scary story is universal, and nobody knows that better than the film industry. The major production centers, from Hollywood to Bollywood, crank out horror flicks in droves, and for smaller markets the genre provides a convenient path to international attention, but, curiously, there are places where monsters and mayhem are in short supply, particularly Norway. Granted the country hasn’t always had a booming movie business; in 2011, after a century of filmmaking, they had made about 900 titles altogether, a number American studios easily surpass in just two or three years, but even proportionally speaking big screen horror has historically not been a big priority for Norwegians, to the point where 1958’s Lake of the Dead (De Dødes Tjern) stood for decades as inarguably the best horror film the nation had ever produced, simply because it was the only one.
Just because there was little to compare it to though, that doesn’t mean Lake of the Dead, sometimes retitled “Lake of the Damned”, isn’t entertaining in its own right, in fact, for what it’s worth, it was ranked the fourth best Norwegian movie of all time in a 1998 poll of local critics. Directed by Kåre Bergstrøm, the film has a lot going for it, especially its ominous woodland setting, imbued with existential despair by Ragnar Sørensen’s evocative cinematography. The story follows a group of intellectual friends who head to a remote cabin for a little rest and relaxation, but on arrival are distraught to find their host mysteriously absent, apparently the victim of the property’s ghostly original owner, who drowned himself in the treacherous nearby lake after murdering his sister and her lover in a fit of incestuous jealousy and is now rumored to lure anyone staying there to the same hopeless, watery abyss.
The members of the party are quickly divided as to what actually happened to the missing man, as the lack of a body complicates matters while they debate whether it was suicide, murder or something much more sinister. As more of them start to feel the grim pull of the lake’s supposedly bottomless depths, particularly the victim’s emotionally fragile twin sister, it’s the psychiatrist among them who keeps a level enough head to save the day, a reflection of the film’s source material, a 1942 book of the same name by Norwegian novelist and poet André Bjerke, who espoused Freudian ideas in many of his works, some featuring the same character seen in Lake of the Dead, the unflappably logical Kai Bugge. In the end, the film leaves some room for interpretation about whether the disturbing events are caused by psychosis or the supernatural, meaning this might technically be considered more psychological thriller than traditional horror.
Ultimately there’s little point in splitting hairs about genre though, in part because it’s a blurry line between the two, and in part since Norway doesn’t have so many horror titles that it can afford to lose any, and certainly not one as influential as this. While Norwegian film production continues to accelerate, a full one-third of those 900 films having been produced between 1996 and 2011, more and more horror films have been coming out of the country, particularly following the box office success of 2003’s Dark Woods (Villmark), many sharing Lake of the Dead’s DNA to some degree. Internationally, a few newer releases have become better known, namely 2009’s comedic Dead Snow (Død Snø), which also features an isolated cabin, only one infested with Nazi zombies, and the genre-bending cult hit Troll Hunter, but when it comes to Norwegian horror, Lake of the Dead still holds its own, even with the increased competition.