I’ve thought about horror before: about what it is. Sometimes, I’ve considered it to be a throwback, or a continuation, of the old tragedies that invoke pity and fear in their audience. Other times, I looked at the genre as something that creates suspense and spectacle, and creates an adrenaline and endorphin rush in everyone that reads, or watches it. Horror, for me, had been twist endings, gruesome effects, strange creatures, and a love of being scared: of seeing that your life is better compared to those of the sufferings of fictitious people who might — or might not — be like real people.
These days, I think horror is elastic. Plastic. I’d argue that it has the most flexibility out of many of the genres in their different media. And, in this case, I’m reminded of a piece I wrote for Kris Straub’s horror comic Broodhollow where I focused on how horror is often similar to a joke.
Oh, we are all about dissection here with The Horror Doctor, and learning from what we take apart and put together in weird arrangements. But I think both the form of a joke — the idea of wordplay or the pacing of a story brought to a fitting end that makes fun of itself or laughs with, or at, its subject — and the ever-adapting form of a genre works when you look at the shoggoth build-blocks that are H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and its mutations that arise. In this vein, I thought I had some idea as to where Tor Mian and Andy Collier’s Sacrifice would go, and for the most part I wasn’t particularly surprised: even as the Devil — or entity — is in the details, and the punchline.
And in a vast School of Spoilers. Reader and dreamer’s discretions advised.
For me, the details seemed simple enough. Isaac Pickman (played by Ludovic Hughes) and his wife Emma (Sophie Stevens) return to his family home on an island in Norway that he and his mother escaped from at least two decades before: trying to solve the mystery as to why they left at all.
There are already a few details here. Isaac’s last name, for instance, is a callback to “Pickman’s Model” and the Salem family that exists in the Cthulhu Mythos in general. As Barbara Crampton, who plays the local police officer and community leader Renate would be familiar in another film that she produced — the remake of Castle Freak — like the Mythos surname Whateley in Romania, Pickman isn’t exactly a Norwegian or a Nordic last name: and what I love is the fact that the townspeople actually call Isaac on that when he attempts to tell them that he came from this place: something I felt needed addressed, or didn’t sit right in the otherwise brilliant and Mythos-loyal Castle Freak.
But there seems to be no resonance with Richard Upton Pickman with Isaac, or his mother, save for the tiny little issue of the fact that she murdered her husband before fleeing with her child so many years ago. The name, however, is useful in showing a Lovecraft-familiar audience that this world does, indeed, take place in the Mythos.
Isaac’s paternal last name is Jorstad. Jorstad has a few Nordic meanings. Mainly, the word refers to, apparently, seven common farmsteads, but is also derived from older Norse words for “battle,” “winner,” or “victor,” and “wild-boar helmet” or “wolf.” There are no Mythos meanings or interpretations, but the name tells you a lot about what Isaac sees himself as, or what he wants to be. He comes to this island, with his pregnant wife Emma, to claim the property of this lost house but you begin to see that he is profoundly unsatisfied with his life: with a middling desk job, and superficial relations of friends and family. There is something … missing inside of Isaac, a part of him that he can’t quite grasp, and he hopes for answers on this island.
And he gets them. Renate, at first quite inquisitorial, asks him if he knows what happened to his father. And it becomes apparent, if it hadn’t been in the first scene of the film with its opening credits, that not only is Isaac’s father dead but his mother killed him. Later, we realize that Isaac had actually known many people in the community and partook in some of their rituals too. He is profoundly disturbed by this revelation, and it continues to affect everything he does thereafter.
Emma comes to this island to help her husband find these ties, not knowing what their jurisdiction is here, very pregnant and morning sick, not liking the water — not at all — and wanting to settle the house’s affairs, get some money, and go back to America and their normal life. She is profoundly stubborn and clear about that, while Isaac himself is passionate and gets carried away by his temper even from the beginning of the whole film. Their arguments, in the beginning are playful banter, but this changes as the house and the whole land around them begins to affect them.
I thought this would be straightforward, as I said before. I’ve written about Dagon, and The Deep Ones — films that adapt the Deep One Hybrids, and their god Dagon, and Lovecraft’s Innsmouth. And what I was anticipating, even hoping, was that what we would get was that Isaac’s family and community were Deep One-Hybrids that existed in Norway instead of America or the Pacific as they had in Lovecraft’s stories. Instead, we find ourselves in a cinematic narrative ruled by a murder house, an insular cult not unlike the one in The Deep Ones but with many families and children, lots of water — water everywhere — sea creatures, and the Slumbering One.
The townspeople are, well think of them if you’ve seen Ari Aster’s Midsommar, as less friendly versions of the Hårga commune except they don’t seem to use drugs, they live on an island, and the couple have not been invited to their shores until they realize who they are. In fact, as the directors and even Paul Kane — whose short stories “Men of the Cloth” and, arguably also, “Thicker Than Water” inspired the creation of Sacrifice according to the Luna Press Publishing interview Paul Kane: Writing The Colour of Madness — were all, in turn, influenced by the folk horror elements of The Wicker Man. Interestingly enough, the film was moved from its original location from England in “Men of the Cloth” to Norway, not unlike Aster setting his film up in Sweden, to avoid too many comparisons to The Wicker Man according to an interview with the directors and Gig Patta from LRM Online. So you can see how all of these elements play off of one another.
It is fascinating to see how they combine Cthulhu Mythos elements with Nordic culture. For instance, Renate has a mural that depicts “The Tree of the Shadow on the Shores of the House of the Dead,” which is called in short “The Slumbering One.” They have rites of baptism called Altarisganga, and they even have tentacle-themed curtains, and a whole lot of — let’s call them what they are — Cthulhu plushies. Yes. I chuckled at seeing them, thinking: “so this is where they are going to go with this.” The towns folk also wear white robes and green amulets not unlike aesthetics the Esoteric Order of Dagon in other Mythos films, but you can see that they could be Nordic pagan garb as well: not including the very clear fact that it’s not Dagon they are worshiping.
They also claim that they “navigate well,” which aside from the Nordic Viking implications that some bar patrons go into quite crassly, also seemed to be a great Green Herring with regards to them being Deep Ones swimming in the water. But more than that, they use a phrase as a greeting and a farewell where they will tell someone to “Dream well.” Uh huh. It took me a moment, because while Neil Gaiman loves to sign his books with that phrase due to his Sandman series, we all know what those words actually mean in this particular context, when you consider who is dead and lies dreaming in his House under the sea. The community citizens think that their deity, or patron, guards their island and that his dreams affect them. Even a child is having a nightmare that is apparently their deity’s nightmare, but their mother passes it off as just commonplace and a matter of fact.
But Renate is clever. As the town official, and head of their cult — or religion — she actually goes as far as to compare the Slumbering One to folktales of Iceland’s elves, Ireland’s leprechauns, and even mainland Norway’s trolls. It is a well placed series of dialogue that, with Barbara Crampton’s put-on Nordic accent is delivered well.
But there is another symbol that pops up as well: that of the house. The generations-old Jorstad family home has mythical resonances for me, as well as personal ones. It looks like something the old Nordics would have made, with their sharp angles and almost bone-white insides. The family of one of my late partners of Finnish descent built, and used to own, a house like it a few generations ago in Canada, and I delighted in making horror story ideas about it when I visited once for Christmas and the New Year: with its fairytale, almost folkloric starkness, and austere beauty. It had even been in a mining town near a lake. You could sense the history of family in there, and see the lives lived in it. I could see the Jorstad home as once having been comforting in a similar way before everything came to a head.
The house, aside from both the strange cramped angles of it reminiscent of the home in Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch-House” and the Jungian undertones as a symbol of a person’s psyche going deep into the basement of their collective unconscious, is both a dream house: and a murder house.
It is a dream house in that it symbolizes Isaac’s lost and nostalgic childhood, and a place to properly settle where he feels he can belong, and become a part of something more due to the … lack inside of him. It is also a murder house in that his father was killed by his mother in that very place, tainting it forever even as he wants to reclaim it for himself, and his new family. And, while find out later that this home, like many others, is a part of a land that does engage in human sacrifice: which is quite the extended metaphor for the house as an individual and cultural consciousness. Clearly, Emma has reservations about this. It isn’t just the ghost of the violence that happened here, in this place that can almost be a haunted house, or the fact that there are visions and occasional sounds of Cthulhu Mythos chanting, but it’s also the oppressive weight of its isolation with the island and the increasingly aberrant psychological behaviour of her husband.
I know that in their Convo X Fango interview with Angel Melanson, Barbara Crampton, Sophie Stevens, and Ludovic Hughes do talk about the latter’s character becoming more unhinged, and the strength of Stevens’ Emma as she deals with nightmares, and the other’s actions. But I think one issue with the film’s pacing is while we do see the interplay between husband and wife at the beginning, their transition into a frayed relationship sometimes seems uneven, and how they react and deal with trauma and revelations doesn’t always come across well. For instance, when Renate tells Isaac what happened to his father, for all that Emma was showing him support in remembering his childhood at the beginning, you don’t see her giving him comfort when he realizes his father was murdered his mother when he’s being interrogated for something that happened when he was a child.
Hell, even the two of them seem to gloss over this when going to dinner with the woman who reveals all of this. This is a Hitchcock Fridge moment where, if I found out my mom killed my dad and took me away from this village, it would genuinely fuck me up. I mean, grief and loss are processed differently, and we see Isaac attempt to do that, but I just … I would imagine just wanting answers, and then really desiring to leave. This is not the only leap in logic that happens here, though in a world of the supernatural that doesn’t say much, but I just like a form of continuity.
The conflict between Emma and Isaac makes sense to me in that they grow to want different things. It’s no coincidence that the bar patrons refer to Christopher Columbus not even having been born before their ancestors colonized America and then later Emma calling Isaac “as threatening as a gold fish” when he tries to act violent. The man seems to suffer from a kind of trauma even though he didn’t know, or remember what happened to him in that previous life: having been raised by his mother and the Pickman family, I assume. It reminds me of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, where a British architectural historian named Jacques Austerlitz gradually looks into his past as a child having been adopted by a Welsh family from his parents that sent him away before he could be taken, like them, by the Holocaust. Technically, Austerlitz never experienced the Holocaust or the camps, or even remembered his parents that well, but that loss was still there and the trauma remains to a point where it hospitalizes him and he needs to know more about where he came from.
Isaac has not experienced genocide, even indirectly, but he did feel the loss of his father and his world, and that community: and a sense of belonging. I feel that Emma doesn’t quite understand this, and it is hard to communicate that fact. Sometimes, I even sympathized with Isaac and found Emma’s attitude terribly insensitive with regards to that trauma. At the same time, she has seen the rites and rituals of the community, along with a very disturbingly worded prayer during the Altarisganga along with the microaggression of one townsperson touching her pregnant belly without her permission, and endless nightmares and premonitions of what is to come.
I think the confusing transitions are inherited in some ways from Paul Kane’s original “Men of the Cloth” story: where an entire family, a mother and father along with their children trying to help their father discover his roots in a small rural English village, go from one situation into a wildly ridiculous early-Clive Barker short story scenario. I also see “Thicker Than Water” with its nearly submerged houses in the endless moving water puns and motifs, running everywhere, a spiritual medium bringing a slumbering god’s dreams and nightmares through dream and murder houses.
I also think some of the rather superficial characters with their shallow needs carried through as well, though the cast definitely give them more nuance. I love how Emma calls Cthulhu “the lazy one” to Renate, and I was totally expecting her to pay for it later. And then, there is another cultural element that leads to the ultimate abusive blowup instigated by Isaac on Emma: the Tupilaq.
The Tupilaq is an effigy, almost a scarecrow figure, of the Slumbering One to show a household mourning one of its family members. Weirdly, after looking to see if it exists in real life on the Internet, I found that a Tupilaq is apparently a Greenlandic Inuit avenging monster made by shamanism or witchcraft. How this crossed over to an actual Norwegian Island, if it came from there or from the First Nations of Greenland in the film is unknown. These are tools made of animal and human parts, even from the corpses of children, to create a monster to attack one’s enemies. Most have not survived, but according to Wikipedia Inuit tribes began to carve them out of bone for European travelers fascinated with the concept. In the case of Sacrifice, these effigies seem to have their roots in Kane’s “Men of the Cloth” and they are made of people too — especially children — though in the film they just depict a death. I imagine there are some issues of cultural appropriation you can get into here. The Jorstad house doesn’t have this version of a Tupilaq, as — supposedly — their family wasn’t there anymore, but Renate and her daughter Astrid have one to commemorate their husband, and father, respectively. I will get back to this later.
It is Isaac that starts to make a Tupilaq for his murdered father, and representing him wanting to stay on the island. But I also think it’s possible that Renate didn’t tell the couple the entirety of for what those effigies are actually used: along with the rest of their rituals, as it turns out.
I think it’s appropriate that, in looking at this film and to quote Astrid, played by a luminous Johanna Adde Dahl, and also a line used by Kris Straub in Broodhollow that “science tells us how, but not why.” And while she is using this to talk to Isaac about an emerald aurora borealis and the stars, it summarizes that I can conjecture how this film and story is constructed, but I prefer to go into questions of why, and its possibilities. Isaac is mostly focused on how to get what he thinks he wants, but Emma is concerned with why, and wanting to get away from it before that knowledge consumes her, and their child.
And here is where the joke has its punchline. Astrid refers to the cosmos and one’s place in it. And Isaac’s pedantic cultist buddies, one in particular, likes to talk about the universe as well in a way very reminiscent of cosmicism: of Lovecraft’s idea that humanity is insignificant next to the vastness of the universe, and its infinite apathetic and malignant horrors. It seemed clear to me that Isaac and his people were Deep One Hybrids, but they are not. This isn’t Innsmouth in “Thicker Than Water.” It is more the villagers in “Men of the Cloth” pleased to fix up “lose threads” from their insular place.
I believed that Emma would kill Isaac, and take their child away in a repeat of the traumatic pattern where his mother killed his father, but that doesn’t happen either.
Instead Isaac, who believes he will sacrifice his wife, ends up being the sacrifice himself. It’s a little strange how they do it. Why they went to the whole trouble of knocking out Emma and tying her on the coastline altar and letting Isaac carry the sword when they could have just taken him and killed him — as they and his father intended to do to him years ago — is beyond me. I think it is for dramatic effect to have that twist. I mean, come on: his name is Isaac. We know what Isaac means in the Old Testament: a father’s sacrifice to his deity. I knew it was going to happen, I just didn’t know how … though the why is obvious. The Slumbering One is sending out nightmares. He isn’t pleased that a sacrifice had been foiled, or the community disrupted. Balance must be restored. Also, Renate doesn’t seem too upset killing Isaac, thinking it would have been better to kill him before he became an abusive self-deluded pathetic man. And Emma lives, at least until the child is born.
But why? Well, I have a theory of my own. The cosmic joke about Isaac might begin with the fact that his mother isn’t from the island. She is an outsider. His father specifically married her and somehow got her to the island. My theory is that every couple of years or so, the island intermarries with an outsider to create a child that will be sacrificed to appease their deity who resembles Cthulhu. Unfortunately, Isaac’s mother killed his father and left with him before this could happen: while not informing him of the truth. But I wonder, and perhaps only Barbara and the directors can confirm this, if there is another, more personal reason Renate kills Isaac: and why Astrid is so utterly fascinated with him.
Renate is visibly upset over Isaac’s father’s demise even years later. It could be because of the disruption of the metaphysical and communal balance, but I wonder if there is more. Apparently, Isaac’s mother told him that his father had “another family” and that is why they left. Now, it is probably a reference to the cult of the island, but he inferred that his father had an affair and another partner and children. What if the reason — the true reason — a Tupilaq wasn’t built for Isaac’s father is because … it actually was? We never know who Renate’s husband is, for instance. And she is keen on finding the woman that killed him: perhaps more just a police officer’s zeal for a case opened twenty-five years?
Maybe there is more than one reason why Renate wanted Isaac dead. Perhaps that’s why she wants Emma alive: either to keep that bloodline going … or to eventually make another sacrifice. Wouldn’t that be a great cosmic punchline to a fascinating film so rich with a created mythology combined with pre-existing ones. Perhaps horror isn’t a revelation of knowledge people are not meant to know, or knowing they aren’t important. Perhaps it’s that there are other powers inherent in reality that play with lives, that are amused by such. And, at the end, perhaps the true sacrifice is no only one’s sense of self-importance, or sense of belonging, but one’s own peace of mind. A sleeping mind isn’t always a placid one.
And with that knowledge, I wish you a good night.