Relationships can haunt us. Long after they end, they revisit us in the dark of night. Regret and heartbreak sneak out of the shadows, creaking across the floorboards, slinking under our beds like the boogeymen we feared as children. We lie there, rigid in anxiety, awake and unnerved for hours. This feeling is made manifest in the Icelandic horror offering Rift, which recently won buzz at Fantastic Fest and the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.
Written and directed by Erlingur Thoroddsen, Rift (also known as Rökkur), centers on two former lovers, drawn back together in the wake of a strange late night call. From a far off and isolated outpost, Einar (Sigurður Þór Óskarsson) rings his ex-boyfriend Gunnar (Björn Stefánsson), and asks, “Do you ever get that feeling when you wake up in the middle of the night, that something is there with you in the dark?…Or someone?” Concerned his wounded ex is on the brink of suicide, grim Gunnar drops everything and drives through the night to reach him.
Theirs is not a joyful reunion, but one that stings like the creeping cold of the winter around them. Gunnar berates Einar over drinking and recklessness. Einar blasts back, demanding to know why Gunnar walked away from their relationship and why he’s come all this way. Spinning into tenderness and abrasiveness in turns, Thoroddsen’s script dances, elegantly creating a heart-tugging tension in this fractured romance. Throughout, he adds flourishes that tease out dread and terror. Strange noises in the night. A front door that opens on its own. An ominous figure always just on the edge of Gunnar’s vision. To Gunnar, all of it spells threat. And despite his rebuffing of Einar’s advances, he cares deeply for the broken blond beau, and strives to protect him from the mysterious evil that comes knocking at their door.
Relishing the harsh but gorgeous landscapes of his homeland, Thoroddsen creates a setting at once dangerous and wondrous. As Einar and Gunnar walk in the shadow of glaciers, or trek to the ledge of the titular rift, there’s an eerie awe that streams from the screen like the cool air from the icy mountains. Thoroddsen’s patient but pursuing camera flows with a dreamy ease as it follows these lovers with an almost menacing attention. Meanwhile, the score of piano and strings sings a gentle warning. But this horror gem would not work if it weren’t for its extraordinary performances.
Stefansson and Oskarsson are positively riveting. From their first post-break-up encounter at a party, they deftly establish their volatile chemistry. Older and stern, Gunnar is almost rigidly repressed, while Einar—oft drunk and always exhibiting his hurting heart—is immature and intensely sensitive. They collide, spark, fight and fuck, and every moment is fraught with emotion, be it love, regret, rage, or fear. Their dramatic tension is as absorbing as Rift’s immersive backdrops and looming cinematography. With it all, Thoroddsen casts a spell of wicked enchantment. But just when it seems peace and love might win over rejection and war, Rift delivers a sequence so uniquely terrifying it had me checking under the bed before I dared turn off the lights to sleep.
It’s been days since I watched this film, and still it haunts me. Not just with its goosebump-inducing climax, but with its love story that’s so captivating, exhilarating and raw that I want to go back, and submerge into it again. I want to surrender once more to the cold, the chills, the thrill and terror, and ultimately that heady blend of love and pain that makes Rift feel like Call My By Your Name meets It Comes At Night.
Rift made its NY premiere at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.