Finale (aka The Ringmaster) (2018)

Finale (aka The Ringmaster) first published by SciFiNow

Taking place (mostly) in an isolated petrol station on the night that the Danish football team is playing in the finals of the European Championship, Finale (aka The Ringmaster) sets itself up as a familiar – indeed timeless – tale of predatory victimisation. The station owner’s daughter Agnes (Anne Bergfeld) and disgruntled employee Belinda (Karin Michelsen) are working the late shift – Agnes’ last. Given that all of Denmark has their eyes on the football, little through-traffic is expected that evening, and apart from a few odd customers (Damon Younger, Kim Sønderholm, Gustav Scavenius), and Belinda’s aggressive boyfriend Kenny (Mads Koudal), the place is dead. Someone, however, is watching, and messing with the two women – and soon they will find themselves, along with Agnes’ partner Benjamin (Kristoffer Frabricius), become the involuntary objects of others’ spectatorship in a very different kind of arena.

Adapted from Steen Langstrup’s 2011 novella All The Things She Wished She Didn’t Understand (2011), Søren Juul Petersen’s feature debut presents a series of generic situations from horror – the cat-and-mouse modalities of a slasher, the basement depravities of ‘torture porn’ – and plays these scenarios in what is, for the most part, a realist mode. All this is subverted by the narrative frame: a formal division into prologue, parodos, subsequent numbered ‘episodes’ (each with its own subtitle), exodos and epilogue, serving as a constant reminder that what we are witnessing is a structured, packaged entertainment, as ancient as a staged tragedy. Indeed, the prologue takes place on an actual stage, with a tuxedoed presenter (Lars Knutzon) appearing in front of red curtains, to deliver, explicitly on behalf of the director, a Frankenstein-style ‘friendly warning’ to the audience that the film to follow will deal with “the boundaries for good entertainment and the morbid curiosity of the human mind”. In case anyone misses the MC’s allusions to shocking material to come, the narrative keeps alternating its time frame between scenes of Agnes and Belinda getting more and more creeped out in the petrol station, and an aftermath in which a bruised Agnes is held bound and captive in a hellhole to face all manner of filmed and broadcast torments.

Not only is Finale entirely upfront about the confrontingly torturous direction in which it is headed, but in case any viewers have – or at least have pretended to themselves to have – forgotten this, the film regularly (at the end of each episode) offers us further glimpses of that grim finale. In other words, Petersen will not let us off the hook of our own moral complicity as viewers, rubbing in our faces the nature of what we have elected, of our own accord and with full cognizance, to witness. Put simply, we cannot claim we were not warned. Meanwhile, the film offers up a range of other, intradiegetic cameras and viewers to reflect and refract our own casual vice as pursuers of voyeuristic pleasure. “There are cameras everywhere,” as one of the customers puts it – and Finale offers theatricalised thrills, reminiscent of My Little Eye (2002) or Dhogs (2017), that place us uncomfortably in a long tradition of sadistic spectacle and vicarious sport, while asking what morbid curiosity drives us to seek out horror in the first place.

Strap: Søren Juul Petersen’s feature debut uses slasher/torture porn tropes to put paying viewers in their (uncomfortable) place.

© Anton Bitel