28 May 2014

Recent Weres, Vamps, and Ghostly Films!

Contemporary Werewolves, Vampires, and Ghosts, Oh My!
By Kristin Battestella

Despite the abundance of low budget, poor quality scary film fair, not all modern horror pictures are that bad. Here’s a few slightly feminine wolfys, vamps, and paranormal creepies giving some hope to recent horror productions – and one stinker, of course.

Byzantium – Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace) and Saiorse Ronan (The Lovely Bones) anchor this 2013 vampire spin from director Neil Jordan (Interview with a Vampire) co-starring Jonny Lee Miller (Hackers), Maria Doyle Kennedy (The Tudors), and Caleb Landry Jones (X-Men: First Class). The cinematography from Sean Bobbitt (Hunger) is intriguing, and a golden, antique patina contrasts the bitter daylight, nightclubs, boarded windows, and harsh concrete. Ironic uses of Etta James standards and melancholy piano music add to the slight sense of abstract– the contemporary still has a feeling of the past in old décor, fedoras, and aged computers. Nostalgic paper, pens, and handwriting or scandalous red lights and saucy lingerie establish the ladies’ personalities better than the in medias res mellow narration, which takes too long for viewers who didn’t know this movie would be about vampires. Fortunately, Arterton is sexy yet deadly and nude yet refined – she’s a killer in every sense of the word but bizarrely maternal, loving, and considerate. Although Ronan’s depressing, woe is me burdens are a bit much, her somber, hypnotic blue eyes are classy and bittersweet. Her flashbacks provide interesting snippets of period piece macabre; the past wasn’t glamorous but dirty, grimy, and violent thanks to Miller. Clearly, the emo Eleanor just wants attention, and those ready to die recognize her for what she is. Aren’t there better ways to go about your hidden existence until disbelieving authorities, prodding schools, and teen angst disrupt it? Each vampire seems trapped in easy, cliché mindsets from centuries ago – nobody can learn anything or mature in 200 years? The fine but disorienting flashback within flashback and non-linear two hours make the audience wonder why writer Moira Buffini (adapter of the 2011 Jane Eyre, where the flashback pacing worked wonderfully) didn’t put the storytelling in order or tighten the slightly long and uneven vampire mythos instead of calling attention to the hip framework. Brief shots of the seemingly aware police in pursuit go unexplained until the finale, and perhaps the plot should have been all period or totally present. Thankfully, the brooding feminine spin, artsy blood and gore, and a unique vampire creation and organization combine alongside the subtle but expected sharp nails, wrist bites, and jokes about fangs or daylight. These ladies dab the blood from their lips, quietly wait for the invitation to enter, get tempted by the sight of blood and injury, take the lives of the ill or elderly – and they watch Hammer movies! This isn’t scary, and the assorted accents and Brit-ness may bother some. However, this isn’t a sparkly teeny bopper love triangle either. The viewer doesn’t always know what happens next in the intense finish, and this tale makes for a surprising, worthy piece of vampire storytelling.

(Ironically, I must say, I have a 2008 novel about a family of vampires that goes back and forth with flashbacks and varies points in time, too, hehe.)

Ginger Snaps – This quality Canadian horror drama will be too teen girl angst for some adult male audiences; it’s not for animal lovers and today, such teen sex, drug uses, school violence, juvenile morbidity, and obsessions with death would land sisters Katharine Isabelle (American Mary) and Emily Perkins (Hiccups) in serious hot water. Director John Fawcett (The Dark) and co-writer Karen Walton’s (Orphan Black) puberty is horror theme, however, was new during the Y2K era and this Red Riding Hood equals Big Bad Wolf combination fits the solid coming of age progression and lycanthrope twists. Unlike recent in your face horror clichés, there’s sexy here without cheap nudity, the handsome blood and gore isn’t too gory, and the non-CGI wolf get ups are well done. The sharp editing isn’t hectic or seizure inducing, and the likeable, witty, sardonic characters are given full room to blossom or wax irony– the go to expert on wolfs bane is the town’s resident pot dealer! The audience doesn’t know how far the scares and suspense will escalate or if this sisterly core can survive the wolfy puberty. Unfortunately, there is a big, slightly unsatisfying problem with the typical house under construction chase finale and all the potentially worthy plot lines and red herrings left hanging in its wake. How much did quirky mom Mimi Rogers (Someone to Watch Over Me) really know? She’s giddy on periods and womanhood and just happens to buy the deadly poison needed at a craft store – seriously? Deleted scenes and extended DVD editions once again rear their head here, but none of that answers one very critical question: Who’s the original dang wolf? Yes, this lovely werewolf build up and fine feminine sisterhood feels imbalanced in the end, however this is a great, morbid teen thriller for budding macabre young ladies. 

Mama – Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones) lead this 2013 scary fairy tale from producer Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), director Andres Muschietti and co writers Barbara Muschietti (from their original Mama short film) and Neil Cross (Luther). Dangerous snowy roads, car action, and police radio immediately establish the isolated cabin and wooded perils for these adorable little girls and their innocent statements. Firelight only scenes, dark surroundings, and creepy noises accent the almost livable but messy designs and wild child state of mind. Eerie observation rooms, case study reports, medical analysis, and research montages anchor the scary amid a reality of courtrooms, technology, and red tape. Some of the brighter colors do seem too pretty or oversaturated; however, pleasing shadows, reflections, and flicking lights keep the spooky subtle. Megan Charpentier (Resident Evil: Retribution) and Isabelle Nelisse (Whitewash) create an excellent mix of sympathy and disturbing – their child artwork, whispers, and games are both cute and eerie along with moth symbolisms and leaf motifs. Although she has stunning eyes and cheekbones, Chastain doesn’t quite fit her character’s short, dark hair and punk style. Her attitude and problem with kids feels fake or without cause, and she’s more worried about her own safety then helping these girls. Her Annabel is more like a stunted teen babysitter, complains this isn’t her job, and what bass we hear from her isn’t that good. Psychiatrist Daniel Kash (Hannibal) is right when he tells her to grow up, but he also foolishly doesn’t share all his case findings. Is this film about a doctor and a woman trying to help in this unique child tale or is it about scaring the obligatory but rocker babe? Realizations come too easy, the rules of the scares change, the motivation or abilities of the entity become purely opportune, convenient file folders and information are stolen without consequences, and research ladies who claim to not know anything sure do drop a load of exposition. The bump in the night scares or jump moments are typical don’t look in the closet, haunted house hijinks, and the extra boom chords and flashes of light are unnecessary, for the audience only ploys when the troubling video sessions with the girls or seeing and hearing their reactions suffice. The CGI also looks iffy and dark, and though fittingly eerie, askew and distorted coma visions and dreamy flashbacks look cartoonish. Most of all, however, I’m disappointed that the rental blu-ray is full of previews and shows the menus and features before blocking them with “This disc is intended for rental purposes and only includes the feature film.” Hmph. There is a nice pace, mood, and atmosphere here, but the lack of answers, plot holes, and thinly drawn characters will be too much for some viewers to ignore. I mean, not only do the psychology and relationship possibilities fall prey to womanly doing right by the spirit sacrifices, but explanations to the authorities are never considered and what happened to the &^$#% dog? Longtime horror viewers won’t be fooled by the surprising moments and twists here, but fortunately, there is enough child likability and ghostly traditional style for a disturbing watch or two.

Do Skip

Metamorphosis – A promising Elizabeth Bathory narration, Hungary 1610 period fine, and a firelight sweet palette rush to start this 2007 vampire tale before jumping into the present day with a superstitious funeral, great cemetery iconography, and screeching owls. On location country sides and castle filming add authenticity while crosses shake in the presence of vampires for a unique spin. Christopher Lambert (Highlander) has a lot of fun here – even when the script fails him with clichés, jokes, and bad quips ad nauseam. Lambert and family vampire curses past and present would have been enough to carry the 90 plus minutes here, but unfortunately, obnoxious BMW driving youth and their bad acting takes over most of the time. Their gallivanting is of course due to the cliché book research excuse, and a lot of plot holes and not a lot of writing ensue with Corey Sevier (North Shore) and Irena A. Hoffman (House of Flesh Mannequins). The younger cast simply seem like they are in a different, wooden, mess of a movie compared to the classy or seriousness from the elder monks or nuns at hand, and I’ve never wanted to fast forward thru such a moodless, laughable, candlelit sex scene so much in my life. The hip dialogue and delivery from the juvenile ensemble is completely unbelievable and jarring rad cool mixed with past speaketh. The entire Bathory descendants plot and purgatory talk is woefully obvious to the viewer, and it’s tough to find sympathy when the kid cast is waxing historical or mocking what we’ve already seen. The setting should have stayed in the past or gotten to the atmospheric trapped in a scary castle mood much, much sooner. Half the cast, all the comic relief, and the lame excuses disguised as twists should have been excised in favor of explanations and clarifications. Bad fang and eyes effects, pathetic faux Fu, hardly any blood, woeful staking effects, crappy car accident action, and painfully apparent post accident twists are simply too stupid to get past unless you can have a good time laughing along with Lambert.

26 May 2014

Dark Shadows: Collection 15

Dark Shadows Collection 15 Lends a Wild Hand 
By Kristin Battestella

After nearing over 100 hundred episodes in the 1897 flashback storyline, sixties soap Dark Shadows barrels on by adding even more werewolves, ghosts, gypsy curses, and one wild, handful of a talisman to the gothic storytelling on its DVD Collection 15.

While werewolf Quentin Collins (David Selby) and the gypsy sister-in-law Magda (Grayson Hall) who cursed him seek a cure for his lycanthropy, time traveling cousin and vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) tries to keep their paranormal secrets from fellow family members Edward (Louis Edmunds) and the newly married Judith Collins Trask (Joan Bennett). Corrupt Reverend Trask (Jerry Lacey) has all but taken over the Collinwood estate and soon seeks to cleanse the family of its evils once the mysterious Count Petofi (Thayer David) and his magical cohorts come to town.

A surprisingly bloody vampire and a zany off screen shootout resolve plots remaining from Collection 14 early on Disc 1 before leading into new tales and twists in the lengthy 1897 storyline. Character shakeups and spooky develops simply have to happen after so many episodes in the past, and that means resetting several elements and gaining or losing players to keep the paranormal fresh. Everyone in the company has a wrench or contribution to the plot, helping build the complex surprises needed to carry this must see TV from one half hour to the next. Some episodes on Collection 15 also lose the repeated tag from episode to episode thanks to elaborate, one-time action sequences amid the ghosts, witches, zombies, and disembodied hands. The period song and dance scenes may seem more dated than the usual camp on Dark Shadows, but there’s a point to the tunes, steamy dream sequences, and psychics – the undead secrets come to a head thanks to great tension and suspense. 1969 names and plots are mentioned to remind the audience of this 1897 excursion’s original purpose, but the time travel troubles and vampire pursuits increase in their immediacy alongside the expanding werewolf and gypsy twists. How many more people will find out about the vampire? Who’s in on the Count Petofi action?

The wolfy pace heats up for Disc 2 with disposable policemen, jailed lycanthropes, possessions, and cliffhangers. For such a long ongoing soap opera, what the viewer needs to know is speedily recalled – not just 1969 talk but earlier 1897 refreshers of the late Edith Collins. It’s a wonder the Collins family ever made it into the 20th century with all these vengeful ghosts, supernatural causes, and selfish, disfigured lawyers interfering. Séances, blackmail, manipulated wives – some storylines are more far-fetched than others, such as when entire episodes hinge on “Who’s got the hand? Who took the hand? I don’t have the hand!” switcharoos on Disc 3. However, the unexpected, anything can happen Dark Shadows mentality is dang entertaining. The unintentional humor may detract from the scary, but too much is happening to not appreciate the camp action, intelligent twists, and 1897 hysteria to come. Werewolf resolutions don’t come easy thanks to past references to Victoria Winters, the 1795 flashback, and future 1969 dangers. While these layers may be confusing to viewers who didn’t see Dark Shadows before the 1897 stories – or to those who simply can’t remember that far back! –the usage of the infamously inaccurate Collins Family History book creates surprising nuances within the show’s chronology. Instead of growing stagnant Disc 4 adds prophecies, more Petofi angst, and The Picture of Dorian Gray delights along with 1969 revisits for a wild finale in Episode 816.

“Why do we hurt the ones we love?” Jonathan Frid mourns and waxes poetic as the reluctantly violent vampire Barnabas Collins. His toothy hang ups are a convenient plot issue, yet they create wonderful depth and man versus himself pathos. Once his secret is afoot, great cat and mouse games and begrudging alliances ensue. Barnabas sure runs out of places to hide that coffin! The poor guy is exposed left and right, and we feel for his persecution despite his disturbing preying upon Charity Trask. Barnabas is conflicted, tormented, and desperate to save the Collins family in the future, yet he’s fully aware of his timeline troubles and lack of options come sunrise. The hero of Dark Shadows goes on with the good fight even when he despises himself, and Lara Parker as the beautiful witch Angelique adds to his troubles on Disc 1. er Her Her idea of looking out for Barnabas means getting rid of her female competition, but she does seem to grow a conscious at times or change her tune to get in good at Collinwood. Though Angelique’s powers are sometimes used as a magical cure all when it comes to plotting for or against Quentin, they don’t always work, and she also serves as an important reminder of 1969 causes where other 1897 players cannot. Grayson Hall’s Magda is also reformed from her gypsy cursing ways, but now has to endure the wrath of her fellow gypsies to break Quentin’s curse. While Barnabas initially thinks the Hand of Count Petofi is some grotesque joke, Magda’s well intentioned use of it – even in combating evil – leads to insurmountable consequences. Hall’s double duty appearance as her original Julia Hoffman character late on Disc 4 is fun, however, and some of her rituals and flubs are absolutely amusing.

Of course, Magda’s husband Sandor is mentioned as off with the gypsy camp and makes only one very effective appearance in Episode 798 thanks to Thayer David’s new role as the infamous Count Petofi. Debuting in Episode 793 under an alias, Petofi is another fun role and wild character – boy can he bitch slap! From the sniffing around between him and Angelique to the contest of wits with Quentin, there’s a bemusing camp and menace in his undying ways and Jamison twists. Despite far-reaching magics and truths that affect everyone at Collinwood, intriguing possessions and rapidly approaching time limits deepen Petofi’s desperation by Disc 4 while Michael Stroka as his cohort Aristede always seems wonderfully whipped and incompetent. After a great spooky entrance in Episode 791, the ever cackling Aristede also suffers Angelique’s wrath and ends up being choked, attacked, or beaten almost every appearance. There may also be a whiff of innuendo regarding his subservience to Petofi, the way Aristede is easily subdued by Barnabas, and in how he socializes with Tim Shaw at The Blue Whale. However, his wheeling and dealing is not always what it seems – even when he’s being chastised by the pint sized and possessed Jamison.

Surprisingly, David Selby doesn’t appear on Collection 15 until midway thru Disc 1, yet each 1897 escapade ties back to him in some way and Quentin interacts with almost everyone on Dark Shadows. He’s violent with whoever gets in his way, be he drunk or wolfy, but the audience has come to understand his anger and rage even when he’s still bullying Charity on Disc 4. Due to his supernatural troubles, Quentin must make a difficult choice between Barnabas and his immediate family, but I don’t want to give everything away! The lovely Shadows in the Night theme music also makes for an ironic, soothing contrast to Quentin’s fanatical fear of the full moon – those screams and contortions almost seem to happen in monthly real time, too. He sees thru Reverend Trask’s schemes and isn’t all that surprised to find yet another monster locked up in the Old House basement but laments his unusual circumstances, “Time is my hobby.” The poor thing even has his turn at being in charge of Collinwood while everyone else is cursed and crazy! Quentin has a few hokey moments thanks to a woeful Papier-mache looking face disguise, but Selby fans will eat up his tender moments and his being bound and tortured ala The Pit and the Pendulum. Unfortunately, Terry Crawford as the lovelorn servant Beth Chavez is only mentioned early on Disc 2 and sparsely appears in Episodes 793 and 797 as a household catchall maid or babysitter. Quentin, of course, mocks her for her loyalty, but her sensitivity grounds him and they are still a bizarrely charming onscreen couple. Beth is also used by Barnabas as needed, making for some interesting love and jealously conflicts between the vampire and her werewolf boyfriend. Twilight, ha!

Though they don’t immediately appear either, Denise Nickerson as Nora Collins and David Henesy as Jamison Collins have critical moments late on Collection 15. After a whopper of a vampire encounter, we don’t see Nora until more screams, uncomfortable secrets, and violence on Disc 4. These Collins kids must have surely been traumatized! It’s truly scary to watch a little girl being influenced by a vampire predator with calm talk of how they used to be friends and that he won’t hurt her. Likewise, Petofi corrupts Jamison’s innocence and honesty after his return in Episode 801. There’s 1969 David name-dropping or glimpses naturally and Henesy is often playing a possessed or ill child of some kind, but his mature subtleties, hand and glove mannerisms, and innuendo are much more interesting than the seemingly longer Hand of Count Petofi hot potato plots. It’s downright creepy the way Petofi’s power is locked up in an outwardly unassuming child package. Jamison’s little kisses on the cheek are dangerous and deadly truth revealing hallmarks, and these ploys are a great way to create several character changes and comeuppances in quick succession to shake things up. Not that Dark Shadows needed more shake ups, but these developments spearhead the deadly intense finish on Collection 15.

Oh, that Reverend Trask is such a fire and brimstone sure of himself paragon of corruption and its simply delicious Jerry Lacy scene chewing! He wants all the evils out of the way so he can run Collinwood the way he sees fit – but he must have some great confrontations with Quentin and scary standoffs with Barnabas first. Ironically, Trask is just as violent as the monstrous folks are and thinks his doing things for so-called righteous reasons justifies his efforts. He gaslights Judith Collins and uses Petofi’s curses for his own vile overtaking yet amazingly still spins his religious fanaticism. Gloriously, Trask does have some of his ruthlessness come back on him and gets his hands dirty along with Louis Edmunds’ Edward Collins thanks to a staking or two. Edward wanted to be the family head and now he’s stuck dealing with Trask and everything paranormal. Though an odd pairing, it’s fun trying to solve Dark Shadows’ vampire mystery because the viewer knows they are always just one step behind on the case! Edward won’t believe the Petofi possessions but ends up with his own crazy turn as a gentleman’s gentlemen locked in Collinwood’s tower: “I know my place, sir.” “This is your place!” Likewise, where Edward has the family name in mind and Trask his warped righteousness, Humbert Allen Astredo’s black magic using family lawyer Evan Handley seeks to manipulate Barnabas’ vampire secret for his own gain. Of course, this being Dark Shadows, anyone can be caught, bespelled, or zombiefied at any moment – not that any of it stops Handley from using good old-fashioned soap opera blackmail. 

John Karlen has some brief Dwight Frye-esque hysterics as Carl and yet he seems like the most normal person among this crazy Collins family. Once he spreads the word about the vampire, however, it will be his undoing and his now married sister Judith is too busy being under Trask’s killer influence to help. Star Joan Bennett wavers between being swept up from spinsterdom to guilt, confusion, and bitchiness amid some great zingers and slaps. Her screams may be laughable to some, but seriously spooky, fearful specters and marital mistreatments quickly follow. Nancy Barrett also mixes sin, religion, and temptation as Charity Trask but suffers from vampire lusts and manipulation by her dear Reverend father. Her complacent victim is fun and saucy yet disturbing against her frigid, fanatical righteousness. She soon sets her sights on Quentin, and the Episode 786 dream sequence provides the mesmerizing Shadows of the Night lyrics onscreen in full. Clearly, Barrett is having fun with the Pansy Faye song and dance possession, too!

The period music may seem humorous, but Roger Davis is even nuttier and clingier as the vampire handyman Dirk Wilkins. His laughable departure doesn’t last long, sadly, since Davis returns on Disc 3 as uppity, artsy fartsy painter extraordinaire Charles Delaware Tate. Thankfully, his artwork in Episode 806 sets the next phase of the tale in motion and has sweeping implications on Dark Shadows. Don Briscoe’s Tim Shaw also becomes a henchman as needed after blackmailing Reverend Trask and squeezing in on the Hand of Count Petofi action. He forgets his place and thinks he can move up the social ladder, but his 1969 character Chris Jennings is still mentioned as being locked in the mausoleum! New cast member Donna McKechnie joins Dark Shadows late on Disc 4, but her Amanda Harris adds a new element of mystery and romance. Just when one may think Dark Shadows didn’t have anywhere left to go, these new art, time travel, and immortality spins steamroll into Collection 16.  

Behind the scenes interviews on Collection 15 from David Selby, Michael Stroka, the late Louis Edmunds, and Donna McKechnie will be a treat to long time Dark Shadows fans. But then again, the perilous Styrofoam, doors opening at the wrong time, trick candles that refuse to light or go out, and more special effects on Dark Shadows are downright hysterical at times and the Hand of Count Petofi designs are no except. The blue and green sheets, that frickin’ traveling afghan, that pathetic little pendulum, and the three piece suit wearing stunt wolf Alex Stevens may seem hokey, but other visuals are surprising seamless and timely. Faux coffin creaks, spooky bat tweets, and the always great Bob Cobert mood music accentuate the dream scenery, fog, and dark lighting. When the panning cameras, zooms, booming screams, slamming doors, and lights out cooperate, it’s the exclamation on all the gothic mood and fears. Of course, the Hand leads to some wildly bad make up and pasty skin effects that are somehow ghoulishly fitting, but the kinescope versions of Episodes 797 and 813 are more disturbing thanks to séances, ghostly overlays, and Hand suspense. It makes one wish Dark Shadows could have remained in black and white just for more gothic atmosphere!

Granted, the gypsy material remains stereotypical and cliché, and some plots may seem stretched out too long or confusing if you leave off watching Collection 15 for a few days and forget what has happened. I feel like these write ups are getting longer in trying to keep track of the intricate plots and multiple characters complexities! For some audiences, Dark Shadows may seem overly ambitious or comical in this rolling out of characters, twists, and the then soap opera style that is now juicy horror camp. This is an embarrassment of riches, however, and most shows today seem to easily unravel with less material over shorter amounts of time. Ironically, new films and television series are in fact returning to Victorian gothic designs and playing at period paranormal when Dark Shadows has been doing it all along. The rapid pace, perils, monster variety, and fun loving intensity on Collection 15 make it easy to marathon and get carried away in these 1897 viewing pleasures indeed.

16 May 2014

Arn: The Knight Templar

Arn a Surprisingly Good Swedish Epic
By Kristin Battestella

Big shocker, I’ve never seen anything in Swedish before taking in this 2007 Scandinavian epic. Other languages with which I’m familiar, perhaps, but Arn isn’t a picture to which one can merely listen – especially if you have no Swedish reference points. Fortunately, the fine story, performances, and medieval action here transcend any cultural barriers and make for an entertaining good time.

After being excommunicated from his 12th century home in Sweden for his relationship with the would be nun Cecilia (Sofia Helin), the Folkung and Cistercian trained Arn Magnusson (Joakim Natterqvist) must pay his twenty year penance as a knight templar in the Holy Land. There, Arn meets Saladin (Milind Soman) and forms an unlikely bond with his religious enemy.  Will Arn survive the Crusades, return to his love, and help save his best friend King Knut (Gustaf Skarsgard) from the usurping Danes?

First, let’s clarify a few things shall we? Understandably, Arn has English subtitles for the spoken Swedish. However, there is also English spoken by foreigners standing in as representation for the Latin or French influences of the 12th century, and Arabic uses make for an unexpected but excellent touch. Initially released in 2007 and 2008 as two separate films adapted from the Knights Templar Crusades trilogy (The Road to Jerusalem, The Knight Templar, The Kingdom at the End of the Road) by Jan Guillou, Arn: The Knight Templar and Arn: The Kingdom at the Road’s End have been combined on video as a 6 part, 260 minute epic series, making Arn watchable stateside indeed. The historical looks also feel accurate thanks to traditional garb – not high Middle Ages splendor and knights in shining armor seen so often in onscreen ye olde times and places. This most expensive Scandinavian film collaboration isn’t low budget in style but quite even with Hollywood scope. Certainly, there are moments of small scale with tight interior filmmaking, dark photography, and quickly edited charges or swordfights. Fortunately, the mostly on location scenery looks the untouched part, and stone works details, wooden designs, lovely music, fine horsemanship, and all the natural greenery are appropriately charming. There’s no insert computer imagery later needed in Arn because desert oranges and rocky desolation perfectly capture the dusty exile in contrast to the far away Swedish isolation and cold snows.

I like Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, The Adventurer by Mika Waltari, and Knight of the Scimitar by Robert Bancroft; and Arn’s Scandinavian suave makes me want to read the source books – which predate the modern Knights Templar/Da Vinci/Ancient Aliens/American Holy Grail or other fringe theories so often seen on the quote History Channel nowadays. It’s surprising that crusades material seems a mainstream exception rather than full on popular like more fanciful medieval works, but the tale here is well developed with childhood trainings and swift age transitions in the First Episode. Yes, some viewers may find the kid stuff annoying, but it’s also pleasing to see an innocent child who doesn’t understand the politics of his time and the role of God and church in the eyes of his people. Despite this religious fulcrum, Arn is surprising not heavy handed on its Christianity – the church is portrayed as the educational institution and governing body as it was then without any added modern subtext. This was the law of the day, absolutely overseeing people’s lives and without question. Arn uses that influence for its pathos, and medieval or historical fans will appreciate this tug and pull stance. Adapting such epic, however, is not without its difficulty and Arn’s Second Hour sags as more love story elements develop. This near monk and soon to be nun in love understandably equals conflict, and though honest and heartfelt for the most part, this somewhat juvenile budding romance and brief nudity should have happened sooner with a transition montage just like the training years. Even us Yankees don’t need subtitles to figure out a scandalous puppy love or all these horny chicks so ready to mount a young monk’s bones!

It’s simplistic to say Arn is about a man fighting the crusades for the love of a woman, but this theme is certainly relatable across time and place. Arn is a flawed human being among such bloodshed for both the right and wrong reasons, and this mix of personal fiction amid the historical is well done. The enemy sects, kingship coups, and church politics set the dangerous scene as a killer best friend returns and jealous sisters hit the fan. Interesting questions are also raised in how justifiable killing is permissible under church law but love is a crime instead of God’s will. With this serial format, Episode 3 needlessly repeats some of the opening fight sequence but Cecilia’s convent plight is strong, almost like prison segments with abuse, solitary confinement, and deliberate bloodlettings. This back and forth action, however, is sometimes tough in pacing; leaving the crusade intrigue unbroken for opening or closing convent updates might have been better. Though lovely, Arn’s temporary truce campfire scenes with Saladin are also a touch toward repetitive – it’s too on the nose for everyone to ask Arn why he’s there and then follow up with a Cecilia moment or memory. Seeing the full on battle respect between Arn and Saladin in addition to the crusade conflicts and his not knowing Cecilia’s predicament is all multi layered and sweet enough storytelling. Some of the lovelorn compromises the larger picture, and Arn should have perhaps lengthened the army action or stayed in only his point of view. The uneven representation of the penance time between the two seems worse for her than it was for him when casual viewers may have expected war to be the more perilous road.

Fortunately, be it Swedish clan rivals or Holy Land battles, the action in Arn’s Fourth Part is well done. We don’t get to see the entirety of Saladin’s campaign, but Norwegian humor is added and a significantly emotional, tender horse moment won’t be for the faint of heart. Unschooled viewers may of course be confused over some names or who’s allied with whom, but the dates and associates are reiterated enough as their looks change and time progresses. The Saladin action is heavy with serious crusade scenery and fighting entertainment, but this Jerusalem intrigue is condensed in favor of a somewhat sappy reunion, Danish intentions, and the state of things at home politics by Episode 5. If viewed separately, the first Arn: The Knight Templar romance film must seem lightweight compared to the battlefront in The Kingdom at Road’s End. The tale practically restarts by jumping 6 years post hence to show next generation family ties and the future of Sweden, and this seemingly tacked on Sixth Hour finale feels slightly like the Beowulf and the dragon extraneous. Wasn’t Arn supposed to be about a forbidden love during the crusades? Characters disappear, new folks arrive – its stimulating court subterfuge and bittersweet moments, but the novelized tracking the life of one man through epic historical events appears uneven with the cinematic love story and refocused screenplay. The last 40 minutes of warfront at home is perhaps meant to be more foreboding then the crusades and the Swedish patriotism over the potential for religious drama is understandable, but the resolved forlorn love dampens the somewhat fast and easy yet padding climatic battle. Arn is two movies combined to adapt three books and the interwoven plot pacing should have been more taught and polished. Surprisingly then, the conclusion is nonetheless fitting, and again, the overall success and charm here makes us want to read up on our 12th century Scandinavian foils. In fact, it’s a pity there are no movie plans for The Heritage of Arn literary follow up or an original cinematic adaptation focusing on the Magnusson grandsons– which would make Arn’s budding Sweden last hurrah the springboard to another adventure.

Of course, Arn’s only big Hollywood name is Stellan Skarsgard (Pirates of the Caribbean, Thor) as Birger Brosa, Arn’s powerful and politically influential uncle, but the otherwise European, Swedish, and relatively unknown ensemble does wonderfully. Mother Sigrid (Mirja Turestedt, A Midsummer Night’s Party), his father Magnus (Michael Nyqvist, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and Vincent Perez (Queen of the Damned) as Brother Guilbert anchor the early hours while Steven Waddington (The Tudors) as crusader Torroja and Mother Rikissa (Bibi Andersson, Persona) add antagonism. Anders Baasmo Christiansen (An Immortal Man) as Arn’s tubby Nord friend Harold is little more than a humorous sidekick but the lighthearted companion alleviates the war tension. Milind Soman’s (Captain Vyom) Saladin is an interesting enemy with more in common with Arn than his superiors, but at times, Sofia Henlin (The Bridge) as Cecilia seems too pretty among other hardened medieval chicks or too old compared to Arn. Thankfully, her hair and costuming fit the period and the transformation from lovey dovey to strengthening of faith and womanhood progresses naturally even if the chemistry between leads could have been better. They have their avowed devotion so fast and such discipline for so long; Arn constantly tells us of their love or how stupid they’ve been for it but their time actual together feels brief somehow. The audience needs to believe this is so dynamite – defying the church for love! Once reunited, however, one wonders if their torment and the promise of this later, renewed life were worth it. As expected, Joakim Natterqvist (Kiss Me) as Arn is likeable as both a swordsman and the young innocent hero in contrast to his jerky best friend and future king Gustaf Skarsgard (Vikings). We relate to his indentured servitude, an unreasonable punishment brought down by the church due to the manipulation of others against his good nature. The edge he develops in killing for the very church that condemns him and the angst in using Saladin’s trust against him is well done. Again, Arn doesn’t give brow beating theology but smartly elevates the personal amid the epic with all around strong, even excellent performances. In spite of any language barriers, the story and characters shine thru the emotion and scale both intimate and historical. 

Varying video editions and different international versions of Arn per region code certainly create confusion if one wants to undertake a viewing, and those language hang ups will be insurmountable for some audiences. There is, however, a feeling of vindication in this seemingly little known collaborative production – not all medieval historical or fantasy tales jumped from the Lord of the Rings Bandwagon. Not all of them are billion dollar Hollywood flops or record setting excesses cashing in on fad timing or unnecessary sequels and multi part films coughthehobbitcough. Arn takes its time with its epic material without flash or gimmicks, and this two movies together as 6 episodes format available on Netflix captures the entirety of the tale. Game of Thrones is perhaps drawing itself out with expositions and sex positions – will the dragons ever get to Westeros and is winter really coming? – but with this new, stylized, cinematic long form television, I wonder what would have happened if Harry Potter had been a 10 episode series per book rather than a Reader’s Digest condensed few film hours. Why can’t the Lord of the Rings Extended Editions be shown on television as episodic hours? Starz is also using television’s adaptive strengths with serials stateside such as Pillars of the Earth, The White Queen, and the upcoming Outlander. Successes like Arn done on this scale give me renewed hope in someday seeing my proper, long awaited, and far overdue Arthurian spectacles and Beowulf justices.

It helps to know some Scandinavian history to watch Arn, and the uneven middle hours may come from the originally meant for big screen two movie design or crammed in trilogy adaptation. Some critical elements may also seem skipped over or lost in the transition from page to screen even if you are unfamiliar with the literary source. Fortunately, a marathon viewing goes by fast, and it’s nice to see the whole surprising and entertaining tale all at once. Medieval, historical, and period fanciful fans looking for something with less CGI and more heart can overcome any cultural viewing challenges and enjoy Arn’s religious dilemma, coming of age love story, and crusades battle action for its uniqueness, Swedish period style, and quality storytelling scope.