The Damned

The Damned (2024)

The Damned had its world première at Tribeca 2024, 6 Jun 2024

It is midwinter on the Icelandic coast in the late nineteenth century, and food has become so scarce for the small crew manning a remote fishing station here that they have resorted to eating the fish reserved for bait. The helmsman Ragnar (Rory McCann) insists that conditions have been worse in previous years, but in those years, men died – and Eva (Odessa Young), who has been running the station ever since her husband Magnus was killed there, would like to avoid more unnecessary death. Yet in Thordur Palsson’s The Damned, the harshest of elements can demand a harrowing utilitarian calculus, where moral compasses easily become lost, and survival itself can require having to live with unbearable consequences.

The dilemma comes with a stray ship that has become wrecked on the harbour’s perilous rocks (known as ‘the Teeth’, as though the location itself were a predatory, all-devouring monster). Although Daniel (Joe Cole) – a friend of Eva’s late husband – wants to step in and help, in a panicked moment Eva accepts Ragnar’s judgment that rescuing the men on board would further jeopardise the already precarious food supply of those at the station, and so they leave the sailors to their grim fate. Later, as corpses wash up on the beach, the cook Helga (Siobhan Finneran), who often entertains the men at night with her old wives’ tales of vengeful revenants, warns that the wronged dead will come back as a draugur – an angry creature of the shadows that gets into people’s heads and turns them against one another.

  “Man is the warmest place to hide,” ran the memorable tagline to John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). Palsson and his co-writer Jamie Hannigan are self-conscious in adopting Carpenter’s film as an intertext for their own: for in an icy, isolated location, it is not just that people go missing, mad or monstrous, that supplies are stolen or  sabotaged, that paranoia, mistrust and recrimination settle in with all the snow and mist, that something hard to distinguish from a human haunts the station, and that incineration becomes the choice method of dispelling the evil chill permeating the station, but also that more than one character actually refers to their insidious guest as ‘thing’. One might even suppose that this is a period prequel set at the opposite pole, as saga subs for sci-fi. 

Yet even as The Damned draws on the mythological frameworks of both Nordic legend and Campbell-esque fiction, it is also diving deep into the psychology of traumatic guilt and cabin-fever isolation, ensuring that its uncanny events can be ready in more than one way. “The living”, Daniel will tell Eva, “are always more dangerous than the dead” – and that idea is played out in a small, closed community of desperate people who strugle to varying degrees with the notion that “what’s done is done”,  and that the dead stay buried. These beautiful, bleak landscapes are shot wide by cinematographer Eli Arenson to emphasise the smallness of the players in an unforgiving cosmos, while Stephen McKeon’s groaning, howling, creaking score amplifies the sense of something deadly hidden on the inside. For in this hermetic world, no amount of fire will ever fully exorcise the cold that has been allowed to creep in.  

strap: Thordur Palsson’s period chiller has Nordic myth, cabin-fever psychology and Carpenter-esque horror all fishing the same cold waters

© Anton Bitel