The White Reindeer (Finland, 1952)
While it achieved international fame and won awards for several years after release, The White Reindeer had fallen into relative obscurity by the time I became interested in horror. I’m pretty sure I’d never even heard of it until last year. Happily, the current interest in folk horror has brought it back to public attention. It was certainly this folk horror connection that piqued my interest. From the name and the poster alone, I might never have guessed what a strange, dark film this is.
I was in two minds about including it in this year’s October Horror Movie Challenge. The prospect of seeing a classic horror movie from Finland tipped the balance, however. Let’s see whether The White Reindeer deserves its reputation as a classic of the genre.
The White Reindeer is currently streaming on Shudder in the UK.
We open with a montage of the birth of Pirita, set to the eerie strains of a traditional Sámi folk song. The lyrics tell us of a child born to a witch and of sacrifices to the stone god, foreshadowing much of what is to come.
The narrative then jumps forward to Pirita as an adult, being courted by Aslak, a reindeer herder. While the two fall in love and marry, Pirita soon becomes unhappy. Aslak’s work takes him all over the region, leaving Pirita on her own for long periods. She grows lonely and sexually frustrated.
In desperation, Pirita visits what the film refers to as a wizard but who more resembles a shaman. He offers to help her win the heart of any man. This requires making a sacrifice to the stone god. The process goes terribly wrong, however, due to the witchcraft in Pirita’s lineage.
Instead of simply gaining power over men, Pirita becomes a vampiric shapeshifter, uncontrollably turning into a white reindeer that lures men to their doom. Will she manage to break free of this curse or is she fated to bring death to all those around her?
The White Reindeer is introduced as “A tale from Lapland”. It draws heavily upon Sámi folklore and looks to have been shot almost entirely on location. The characters all wear traditional Sámi garb and follow equally traditional ways of life (apart from speaking Finnish, which might have been the case around the time the film was made). Even the opening scene is narrated entirely through a Sámi folk song. This is a film that earns its place in the folk horror pantheon.
At the same time, The White Reindeer is very much a fairy tale, just one of the darker variety. From Pirita’s yearning for love to the magic that leads her to a tragic fate, the story follows tropes we’ve seen in traditional tales from many cultures. One detail that stood is the huntsmen’s belief that cold iron offers the only way to slay the white reindeer. This is similar to protections against fairies in British and Celtic folklore. It’s fascinating to see how widespread these beliefs can be.
One big difference between The White Reindeer and most European fairy tales is that Pirita visits a shaman instead of a witch. Obviously, this is rooted in local Sámi traditions, but it also seems to be an important distinction once we learn that Pirita is a witch herself, albeit an unwitting one.
I was amused that one of the ingredients in the shaman’s love potion is the testicles of ten bull moose. I can’t imagine such a thing in a British or American film from the era.
Although it’s framed as loneliness in the film, Pirita’s motivation for visiting the shaman is very much sexual frustration. In this context, The White Reindeer falls into the broader genre of horror films rooted in fear of female sexuality. Giving into her desires turns Pirita into a predatory monster who preys on men. Sure, the men are drawn to her, but they can’t help themselves, right?
While watching, I made a note about how this reminded me of Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, which was made some 10 years before The White Reindeer. Both involve femmes fatale shapeshifters powerless to stop themselves preying on men. A bit of googling afterwards revealed that I am far from the first person to make this connection.
Music plays a huge role in the The White Reindeer. I’m not sure that there’s a single moment unaccompanied by music. Much of it is pastoral and upbeat, despite the darkness of the story. Almost none is diegetic, however, despite all the festivals and celebrations we see.
And, as an aside, why are the characters in this film surprised when people keep dying in Evil Valley? The clue is in the name. Personally, I’d keep away from there.
The White Reindeer is the biggest surprise of the month so far. I had no expectations beyond perhaps seeing an interesting piece of horror history. Instead, this proved to be an utterly gripping, beautiful and moving film.
The cinematography is a particular highlight. With so much of the story taking place outdoors, we are constantly surrounded by the vast, empty landscapes of Lapland. The bleak whiteness of the snow lends the film an otherworldly quality.
We see every aspect of Sámi life against this backdrop, from family life and weddings to reindeer herding and races. In the first act, in particular, I almost felt like I was watching a travelogue or a documentary about Sámi culture. It was especially interesting to see all the different methods of traversing the snow, using an endless variety of skis and sleds.
With so much of the soundtrack given over to music, The White Reindeer almost feels like a silent film. The stark lighting and heavy use of shadows adds to this, lending a touch of German expressionism. It’s almost startling when characters speak, especially given how little dialogue there is.
All these elements come together to create an odd and truly unique cinematic experience. Nothing about the film is self-consciously weird, but the overall combination of location, folklore and mood turn a relatively simple fairy tale into something powerful and disturbing. I’ve simply never seen anything like The White Reindeer. That alone should be enough to recommend it.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Werewolves Within (USA, 2021)
- Crystal Eyes (Argentina, 2018)
- Super Dark Times (USA, 2017)
- Thirst (Australia, 1979)
- A Ghost Waits (USA, 2020)
- Cemetery of Terror (Mexico, 1985)
- I Came By (UK, 2022)
- 100 Monsters (Japan, 1968)
- Sea Fever (Ireland, 2020)
- Mill of the Stone Women (Italy, 1960)
- Glorious (USA, 2022)
- All the Moons (Spain, 2021)
- Broadcast Signal Intrusion (USA, 2021)
- Incantation (Taiwan, 2022)
- The Gore Gore Girls (USA, 1972)
- Luz: The Flower of Evil (Colombia, 2019)
- Butterfly Kisses (USA, 2018)
- The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (Italy, 1971)
- Saloum (Senegal, 2021)
- The Addiction (USA, 1995)
- Good Madam (South Africa, 2021)
- The Freakmaker (UK, 1974)
- The Long Walk (Laos, 2019)
- Eyes of Fire (USA, 1983)
- Errors of the Human Body (Germany, 2013)
- Caveat (Ireland, 2020)
- The White Reindeer (Finland, 1952)
- His House (UK, 2020)
- Tourist Trap (USA, 1979)
- Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Sweden, 1922)
- Flux Gourmet (UK, 2022)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Night House
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!