The Damned Review: Alien Meets Nightmare On Elm Street In A Stunning Supernatural Horror Debut [Tribeca]

Nowhere is safe. This most basic of horror premises — and the sheer simplicity of its implications — has fueled countless classics and scares over the years. One of the biggest early surprises of this year's Tribeca Film Festival, "The Damned," takes this unsettling idea to even greater heights and establishes a can't-miss new talent cut from a similar cloth as Robert Eggers along the way. Icelandic director Thordur Palsson (Netflix's "The Valhalla Murders" miniseries) makes his feature debut with a story set amid the late 1800s in a desolate fishing station, where a tiny Nordic community ekes out a living from a punishing environment that treats them as hostile invaders. The harsh (but gorgeously-shot) tundra and freezing waters trapping them on all sides lends a physical threat as imposing as the labyrinthine Nostromo in "Alien" or the research station in "The Thing." But in a supernatural wrinkle taken straight out of Norse folklore and myth, even the escape of nighttime dreams proves to be anything but against the creeping weight of what might very well be vengeance-driven spirits.

"The Damned" certainly lives up to its evocative title, following young widower Eva (Odessa Young) and her gruff band of fishermen as they're forced to contend with the weightiest of moral dilemmas and its inevitable fallout. The early, slow-burning portions of the film take great pains to depict a faraway community that has had to learn at great cost how to become entirely self-sufficient. The grizzled beards and haunted, deep-set eyes of the well-cast supporting characters (embodied perfectly by "Game of Thrones" veteran Rory McCann) hint at the toll this has taken as they struggle to catch fish by day, while drunken revelries and chilling ghost stories at night serve as a much-needed respite from the banal dangers they've grown inured to over time.

But when Eva spots a foundering ship off in the distance and makes the impossible choice not to risk their own lives to save shipwrecked sailors who would only further cut into their own dwindling supplies, those remaining end up having to live — and die — with the consequences. 

A chilling ghost story and a potent psychological drama

"The Damned" is very obviously pulling from a grab bag of influences, a broad range that includes everything from John Carpenter to the dreamy horror of Wes Craven's "A Nightmare on Elm Street" to the cultural specificity of Icelandic legend, but this merely adds further flavor and layers to a movie that's much more interested in marrying ghost-story aesthetics with a genuine psychological-thriller bent. Spectacle is the furthest thing from Palsson's mind, which is particularly on display when the sinking of the ship is filmed from a distance and entirely from the perspective of the horrified onlookers on the beach — though that isn't to say this results in an emotional remove. Eva's fateful choice not to intervene is compounded by the discovery of much-needed supplies washing ashore, which finally motivates the small group to row out hours later in the hopes of finding even more. When they encounter a handful of survivors desperate for help, Eva's subsequent actions and that of her crew seal their fate for what's to come next.

Clearly fascinated by the inner workings of the human mind when confronted by feelings of overwhelming guilt, the script (credited to writer Jamie Hannigan) takes a deliberate approach to unspooling the steady breakdown of this last vestige of civilization for miles around. Cut off and alone, Eva grows closer to a well-meaning man named Daniel ("Peaky Blinders" alum Joe Cole), who steps up into a leadership position following their mishap at sea. Though this tender romance provides a brief break from the brutalism of the rest of the plot, Palsson is ultimately more intrigued by the effects of a morality play that soon devolves into a monster movie.

Even in an old-fashioned period piece with a penchant for historical detail, "The Damned" neatly transitions into an unnerving parable where mythical "Draugur" — the bodies of survivors washed ashore turned into undead spirits of vengeance — appear to be stalking this village's every step. And as ominously foretold by an old fisherwoman named Helga (Siobhan Finneran), whose warnings were dismissed as "old wives' tales," neither their waking moments nor the allure of sleep offer any way out.

Odessa Young anchors this otherworldly story

If ever there were a film crafted to evoke a deep, foreboding sense of atmosphere and mood, "The Damned" is one that spends an impressive amount of time and effort on immersing audiences in its dreamlike haze. Shot by cinematographer Eli Arenson (who most recently brought a similarly discerning eye to Ishana Night Shyamalan's "The Watchers"), the color palette trades between sweeping landscapes of white and blue and claustrophobic scenes in which firelit interiors hold all manner of sinister secrets within its inky shadows. The somber, Norwegian-infused score of strings and eerily inhuman chants composed by Stephen McKeon ("Evil Dead Rise") only adds to the ethereal tone, while the artful sound design does so much more than act as a means to an end for its cleverly-deployed jump scares (though there's plenty of that, too). As the story dives further and further into its hellish descent, viewers will come to dread the sound of disembodied breathing and the slow drip-drip-dripping of seawater every bit as much as the visuals of silhouetted figures hiding in the corner of rooms.

This is all held together on the strength of Odessa Young's lead performance as Eva, the ersatz leader of this community after the death of her husband and boat owner Magnus. Although lesser, more uninspired movies would've played up the tension between a young woman and the hardened men trapped in close confines with her, separated so long from their loved ones back home, Palsson's script offers plenty of reason why this close-knit community — if not quite a family, per say — would maintain such mutual respect. With a face practically made to be lit by flickering candlelight and an expressiveness that instantly makes her a window into the character's heightened emotions, Young displays a deft ability to play a frazzled figure thrust into much more responsibility than she ever signed up for ... none of which is ever spelled out in clunky dialogue or expositional scenes.

As the body count piles up and the final act builds to its fiery conclusion, "The Damned" reveals itself to be a cut above most of its mainstream contemporaries. Only a late "twist," which plays out more like an inevitable reveal clarifying the film's themes and which probably should've been kept ambiguous, takes some of the wind out of the film's sails. But even a minor stumble or two does little to hold back one of the year's better horror efforts, leaving us to grapple with images that will haunt us long after the credits roll.

/News Rating: 8 out of 10

"The Damned" will release in North American theaters on a date TBA later this year.