Unrated - Cinema of the Extreme

Júlíus Kemp has spent most of his life in film; directing, producing, and performing camera chores on a varied catalogue of works ranging from music videos to comic shorts. In between stints behind the lens, this versatile filmmaker has also found time to act in a number of roles, and perform directorial duties for the The Reykjavík Intl. Short Film Festival from 1993 to 2000. Having chalked up some success with the edgy Icelandic melodramas, WALLPAPER: AN EROTIC LOVE STORY (1992) and BLOSSI/810551 (1997), it therefore comes as a surprise, that for his third full-length feature, Kemp has made Iceland’s first true splatter film.

HARPOON: REYKJAVIK WHALE WATCHING MASSACRE, as the title suggests, serves as an affectionate nod to Tobe Hooper’s TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE; with it’s intense, documentary-style camerawork, sudden explosions of unprovoked violence, claustrophobic set-designs, and acting services of the original Leatherface, Gunnar Hansen. Other classic horrors films that appear to have inspired Kemp here include NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD with its inclusion of a racially abused black hero, and a death scene that appears lifted from Romero’s classic, and Raimi’s EVIL DEAD trilogy with its emphasis on humour laced gore sequences.

Despite the similarities, viewers expecting a no brains required grindhouse experience would be wrong as HRWWM’s script, courtesy of novelist/scriptwriter Sjón Sigurdsson (DANCER IN THE DARK) is laced with ambiguities that call for a secondary viewing for audiences to understand several emotional conflicts between characters and plot twists that subvert the varied political messages that run through the film. These ambiguities might distance viewers and at times the film appears rushed, perhaps due to Iceland’s fragile economy, but viewers prepared to forgive the film a couple of confusing plot turns will be in for a treat.

The film begins stylishly with opening titles accompanied by documentary footage of excessively gross scenes of whale slaughter. We are introduced to a group of racially stereotypical tourists preparing to charter whale watching vessel, The Poseidon. In common with TTCM, the group encounter Anton (Snorri Engilbertsson), a disabled and seemingly imbalanced quayside hawker of carved whale mementos, who for his troubles is violently assaulted by the boat’s first mate. Once on board, Captain Pétur (Gunnar Hansen) sends out a radio request for the current position of the whaling populace which gets picked up by a vessel manned by demented fishbillies comprising of "Mama" (Gudrun Gisladottir) and sons Teyggvi (Helgi Björnsson) and Siggi (Stefán Jónsson). Unknown to the tourists the fishbillies have an axe to grind: the government placed restrictions on whale hunting, and Greenpeace, or Green Piss” as one of the fishbillies prefers to call the organisation, have succeeded in launching a number of schemes designed to put the fishermen out of business. Without the whales upon which to vent their bloodlust, our demented family turn to humankind for their sadistic kicks.

Captain Pétur is accidently killed following a drunken prank by Frenchman Jean Francois (Aymen Hamdouchi) before the boat can reach its destination, and the first mate jumps ship in the spare boat following the attempted rape of Annette (Pihla Viitala). With no one to navigate the boat, the whale watchers are at the mercy of the fishbillies who under the pretense of rescuing them, take the survivors to their old whaling vessel, where the killing spree can begin in earnest.

HRWWM eschews much of its potential to scare by delivering its horror with plentiful scenes of gore with little time spent building up any sense of suspense. With another nod to TTCM the first attack scene in which a tourist is hit with a gory blow to the head is sudden and quick, though the shock is played with a pitch-black humour missing from Tobe Hooper’s Leatherface hammer attacks in TCM. Kemp’s killers utilise a number of whaling tools as their weapons of choice including cannon launch harpoon, axes, and fish knives, which make for fairly original death scenes. But whilst the gore sequences are fairly well executed, their effect is somewhat diluted by the fact that viewers feel little sympathy for any of the characters due to the aforementioned racial stereotypes. We have a drunken Frenchman who mutters “Ooh la la” and “sacre-bleu”; a Japanese family that sprout racist remarks, mispronounce their English, and film everything with a camera. The Icelandic killers, too, are painted as pagan Nazi sympathisers, but to criticise the script for the characterisations is to miss the point, for rhis is an Icelandic film and much of the plot relies on its sardonic humour to drive events.

For an Icelandic independent, the film’s budget of 250,000,000 Kronur (approx £1.2 million) is rather high, especially given the countries economic situation, but every penny is well spent. The cinematography by Finland’s Jean Noel Mustonen is accomplished and beautifully captures the desolate seas, grey skies, and depressed Icelandic fishing town, adding much mood to the film. Equally fine is an eerie and evocative soundtrack by Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson that complements the photography and adds menace to the dark scenes in the bowels of the ship.

The cast are above average for an independent with both Gunnar Hansen and Pihla Viitala doing especially well given the script limitations. The fishbillies prove convincing psychos and have all the best lines; Gudrun Gisladottir’s character likes to have her victims act (and die) like the whales she was once so fond of hunting; “Sing like a whale” she implores one unfortunate whom she pins to the floor at harpoon point. When the killer’s aren’t bemoaning “American animal huggers” that have turned the Icelandic government “into a bunch of whale loving sissies” they are calling for a return to “Viking ways…brave hunters of these dirty stupid sea monsters”, whilst Siggi smothers Annette in fish entrails and blood in a kinky act of ritual sacrifice to his Lord, “the Father der Fuhrer”. Also worth a mention is Japanese star Nae (LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA; ULTRAMAN; INLAND EMPIRE; MPD PSYCHO I, II, & III) who delivers an intriguing turn as a young woman with a secret agenda.

With a bleak ending reminiscent of OPEN WATER and laced with irony, HARPOON: THE REYKJAVIK WHALE WATCHING MASSACRE is an effective slice of modern slasher despite its obvious shortcomings, and genre fans could do a lot worse than spend their cash on this one.

Carl T. Ford


Directed by Júlíus Kemp

English and Icelandic language/ Iceland / 2009 / 83 Mins 36s / Colour / Rated 18

Region 2 / PAL
Anamorphic widescreen Feature Aspect Ratio: Aspect Ratio: 4:3

DVD Extras

An E1 Entertainmen DVD release

Region 2 DVD (UK)

Release date 10th May, 2010


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