There is no Thor in this Ragnarok. You won’t find an epic gladiatorial battle between superheroes. What you will find are creepy runic messages, a cave of no return, skeletons that seem to almost whisper the horrors of the past, and a terrifying zombie dragon with way too many teeth. It’s kind of like Viking legends meet Lovecraftian mythos.
You would think anyone brave enough to venture into the bizarre would be lining up for this movie—except there really weren’t many places to line up. There usually aren’t for a subtitled movie entirely in Norwegian. After its release at Fantastic Fest 2013 (where it was reviewed positively), the other Ragnarok movie only had a limited theatrical run in the kind of hidden art-house theaters even your GPS can’t find. This is an unfortunate phenomenon that plagues too many foreign films. Even reviews can’t do much when most horror fans who would have cared less about the subtitles had no clue Ragnarok existed long before the title had any association with Marvel.
Directed by Mikkel Brænne Sandemose, who is also an award-winning commercial and music video director, Ragnarak or Gåten Ragnarok (The Riddle of Ragnarok) doesn’t rely on bombastic special effects to make your blood run cold. Filmed in the caves of Norway, which are creepy enough without added CGI, the film is shrouded in ominous shadows and fraught with treacherous paths and jagged rocks that only get scarier when someone shines a flashlight on them. Places like this don’t need much to convince you that something is going to leap out of a chasm any second. Here’s all the proof you need that natural settings can sometimes be the best low-budget film sets ever.
When Viking-obsessed archaeologist Sigurd Swenson blows a major presentation for funding at the museum, he thinks he’s going to be demoted to a tour guide ... until colleague Allan bangs on his door late at night with a potentially life-altering discovery. The stone tablet in Allan’s hands is carved with runes that spell out a mysterious message as they spiral toward its center. Siguard and Allan are able to make out something about a king who went too far in his quest to get close to the gods near a now long-forsaken island known as the Eye of Odin.
Sigurd and Allan join forces with Allan’s field partner Elisabeth and guide Leif to investigate. Sigurd’s son and daughter aren’t exactly thrilled to be spending their summer vacation in the ancient forests of Finnmark, which is where the artifacts about which Sigurd made his ill-fated presentation were found. Crawling into shadowy places out of boredom leads them to some things that should have been left in the dark. Like centuries-old human skulls (and some not so old) fished out of a pool of dank water. Or that strange rock that isn’t really a rock.
The team realize too late that they misread the message on the stone tablet, which was supposed to be a warning instead of the map they mistook it for. This is only after something nameless emerges from the deep to shake them out of their bunker and nearly eat several of them alive. The truth about the Eye of Odin starts to unravel as the archaeologists put together the pieces of what happened on that island thousands of years before, of a foolish king’s bravado and his daughter’s vain efforts to stop him before he fell to a creature lurking in the blackness. There is a reason the waters ripple on their own and the caves double as tombs. There are some things, ancient and terrible and almost unmentionable things, that should not be disturbed.
The strength of Ragnarok in the epic battle of underrated movies is that it uses the power of suspense to its advantage. This is not a movie for the impatient who want to be electrified by special effects right away. It unearths its secrets as slowly and tantalizingly as H.P. Lovecraft’s tales of the bizarre, which give you chilling glimpses into what could be hiding beneath the surface until those revelatory moments that escalate into pure horror. In some ways this is a Viking-ified echo of At the Mountains of Madness, in which an ill-fated expedition revealed things they were never supposed to find. It creeps upon you hint by hint until it finally sinks its fangs into your flesh. You do not disturb the Great Old Ones—or anything else great and old.
Another element of this unnerving (in the best possible way) film that also recalls Lovecraft is its insidious way of tapping into primal human fear. This is not a movie that delivers shock after shock. It slowly crawls up your spine as artifacts that should have stayed buried start to emerge and peel back another layer of what frightens us to our bones. When a human skeleton that was very obviously from this era is fished out of a fathomless lake, you feel your heart thud as if you were the one in that cave with the smell of dank water filling your nostrils. You see the beast and everything that inevitably leads up to it through eyes of different backgrounds and ages, and whether the witness is a wide-eyed child or a seasoned archaeologist makes no difference when faced with jaws full of dagger teeth.
While Ragnarok isn’t an otherworldly circus display of Thor wielding his hammer and summoning lightning, it is a legit horror movie that will shake you if you know how to watch it. Every flicker of a flashlight in the shadows reveals a rune or a trinket that ultimately fits into the greater tapestry of dread that culminates in something beyond imagination. You have to just shut off your smartphone and everything else to focus on the crucial details that would otherwise get lost in that cave.