*Warning this article contains graphic description of self-mutilation and animal cruelty, reader discretion is advised*
Every year, the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network surveys citizens of each UN member state. In the “World happiness report 2021” Finland took the number one spot and Iceland the second. The rest of the Nordic counties Denmark, Sweden and Norway are also in the top ten.
What’s it like in the five Nordic countries then? Icelanders start celebrating Christmas in October, wearing Santa Claus costumes and singing and knocking back beers like there’s no tomorrow. In Stockholm, everybody greets you with a deliriously happy HEJ! as they bounce about, many on their way to 80s style solariums to top up their tans. Swedes never worried much about skin cancer or indeed Covid 19, even though the eldery drop like flies around them.
In Copenhagen weed is illegal but easily available and it shows. The locals in bars and clubs slap your back and shove snegles – massive cinnamon “snails” oozing with marzipan – in your hands, expecting you to get the munchies like they do. It’s a happy city for sure. In Oslo, everything is super expensive, yet as they still have oil to sell for another couple of years living is easy and it’s like Saturday there five nights a week. In Helsinki, the first sight that greets you should you arrive on a boat is a 10 meter high iron statue of a spaced out looking naked boy pissing gleefully in your direction – a portent of things to come. I live in Finland and yes you certainly can have a good time here. We fought for our right to party and won.
Yet, as you suspect, despite all the frivolity, karaoke-singing, naked swimming and the midnight sun, there’s darkness up north. Suicide rates are high. Ultra-right wing parties thrive. In each Nordic country, once you venture beyond the capital cities, you’ll come face to face with white trash families in mullet hairdos, stone-washed miniskirts and ugly tattoos, grossly overweight people lumbering in and out of their Ford Cortinas equipped with furry dice, Wunderbaums and inevitably, death metal in the soundsystem. In their world Stephen Seagal is still the biggest film star in the world.
Sounds sort of intriguing? The handiest in-a-nutshell introduction to the flipside of the happy Nordic scene is the still-in-print noir-cum-extreme-content horror novel Crow Girl by Erik Axl Sund, a pseudonym for two Swedish authors and hard rock musicans Jerker Eriksson and Håkan Alexander Sundquist. The book even looks intimidating as it’s over 700 page long but don’t let the number of pages put you off. The plotlines do seem labyrinthine at first but they converge with ease as the story gets under way, quickly. In the beginning, the corpse of an unidentified young immigrant boy is found dumped into a hole in Stockholm, showing signs of having been sexually tortured and then gradually mummified by some chemical process while still alive. The discovery leads the superintendent Jeanette Kihlberg on the trail of a cult dedicated to ritualistic corruption and murder of minors. She is aided by Sofia Zetterlund, a psychotherapist suffering from multiple personal disorders. The viewpoints of both alter in the narrative, with flashbacks of someone called Crow Girl, possibly the perpetrator of the murders piling up. All three start off with childhood traumas and depression and move on from budding mental problems to full scale paroxysms of murderous rage. They curl up, scream, tear chunks of their hair out, lose consciousness and wake up with blood on their hands: have I hurt someone? Where is my child?
In addition to Jeannette, Sofia and the crow girl there’s quite a mouthful of bizarre characters to chew on, each new one harboring more hideously evil secrets than the last. In passing, you’ll also encounter former child soldiers with mutilated and deformed genitals, deranged Jesus freaks holed up in squallor, pornographers and half dead victims of mind control experiments.
The writer duo have been back with more since Crow Girl was published in 2010 but it remains their magnum opus, unsurpassed in descriptions of inhuman depravity and it’s ability to draw you in like quicksand.
For something similar I also recommend the inspector Joona Linna books by another duo of Swedish writers, a husband and wife team operating as Lars Kepler. These read like more conventional crime fiction only with heavy doses of sick horror à la Pascal Laugiers’s film Martyrs. The nemesis in the series is Jurek Walter, an almost superhumanly cunning and evil criminal who delights in making your deepest fears and phobias a reality. Jurek only appears as a footnote in the latest installment The Mirror Man but is expected to return full force in the next one.
Refreshingly, for once the police inspector is not a recovering alcoholic and there are no annoying subplots involving divorce settlements or mawkish children. Also, main characters you’d think would last till the final page often vanish and are later discovered dead, or living in cardboard boxes with their hands and feet cut off. All the books can be read as one-offs, but it’s best to start with the first one, The Hypnotist.
On to movies, then, and more sex and violence! Tastefully shown frontal nudity was already seen in most territories during the 30s in non-sexual content in the Leni Riefenstahl documentaries about the Olympic games, and in some countries, punters got so witness Hedy Lamarr simulating an orgasm even, albeit only with the face visible, in Gustav Machatv’s Ekstase. In the Nordic countries, nudity as such was never a big deal on the screen, and was allowed to be seen by people of all ages.
Censorship in all media was completely abolished in Denmark in 1969. Pornography became legal in Sweden soon after. Hardcore material became freely available in Finland too, even though it was still technically forbidden. Norway and Iceland remained more conservative until the early 2000s.
While sex was mostly okayed up north descriptions of brutality were seen as problematic, with the exception of Denmark. Up until the early 90s Swedish film distributors could not present heavy doses of violence to their public due to the attitude of the state controlled board of censors., Even films generally seen as quality productions were not immune. Martin Scorsese’s Casino was judged as unsuitable in it’s original form, and was heavily cut despite protests from Scorsese himself. Regular horror and action films were routinely shortened, often to the point of becoming incoherent. That was the case with the most famous Swedish exploitation classic too, “Thriller – En Grym Film / Thriller – A Cruel Picture / They Called Her One-Eye”, directed by Bo Arne Vibenius in 1973. When it was finally allowed to be screened the year after, 25 minutes were taken out. Gone were most of the slomo shootouts and the martial arts displays by the eyepadded avenger played by the iconic Christina Lindberg, and naturally the infamous scene involving a sharp scalpel and the eyeball of an alledgedly real (?) human corpse acquired from a hospital. But because Thriller is well documented elsewhere let’s look at a couple of more obscure films that have scandalized the country and other places as well.
One Swedish film to cause major uproar was Vilgot Sjöman’s 491, made in 1964. The title refers to a biblical pontification stating “it is written that 490 times you can sin and be forgiven”. The sinners in question are juvenile delinquents forced to participate in a social experiment, living together in a controlled environment under close scrutiny. Things don’t go as planned of course and what transpires was considered way too much bitd. The sequences offending the censors were two rape scenes, one between two males and one involving a growling German shepherd dog. Even though there was a definite “seriousness” to the film it had to be re-edited as that sort of content was seen as unacceptable for quite a few years to come. The complete version wasn’t screened in Sweden until the mid 70s but apparently it wasn’t distributed then to anywhere else as it was in black and white. Plus, even though it was then only ten years old, it already looked way too dated to be shown outside arthouse circuits. Luckily, the film is available on dvd, albeit without subtitles. Still as time hasn’t totally diluted the shock factor and the whole thing does positively ooze with murky unpleasantness it’s very much recommended. You might try to get your hands on the original novel by Lars Görling first though to fully undertand the plot. Translations should be tucked away in most libraries around the globe.
Vilgot Sjöman was also responsible for the 1977 Tabu. This one is absolutely essential viewing for anyone into the weirdest possible world cinema, that is, people like us. Thankfully, it’s also available on dvd as part of the “Svenska Kultklassiker” (Swedish Cult Classics) box set, along with Smutsiga Fingrar/Dirty Fingers, another must-see slab of Swedish sleaze. IMDB describes Tabu as an investigation of various sexual identities and peculiarities outside the accepted norms. As it was by the man behind 491 and the immensely successful critique of capitalist society I Am Curious, Yellow (yawn), you’d think what is on offer is a study rooted in social realism, a daring yet genuinely heartfelt plea to understanding and tolerance. Not so in this case. What you get is a wallow in pure voyeurism with uniquely slimy characters and atmosphere, even by 70s standards. The story in a nutshell: a concerned young lawyer attempts to unite the different “tribes” of what society calls perverts, in an attempt to show the public they are nothing of the sort. After wiggling his willie in front of a minor in a park possibly for for some “liberating” reason, he contacts the local LGBTetc association and starts his investigation of the lifestyles of masochists, crossdressers and necrophiles. With him we get to gawk at naked submissives getting whipped in pools of mud, endless sex sessions with ugly hippies and the once respected actor Viveca Lindfors dancing to horrible Swedish rock music and shoving her unshaved armpits towards the camera. Instead of trying to present the various participants as individuals with alternative ways of expressing their sexuality, Sjöman parades them in front of the camera as grotesque freaks with hysterical mannerisms, as if asking “see? Is there really a place for people like these in our society?” It’s no spoiler to announce the final great liberation party ends badly, depressing the lawyer and everyone else involved.
The film hasn’t anything to do with horror of course but it’s a brutal experience nevertheless. Understandably there was no worldwide distribution, it only got shown in a handful of countries. In Finland, it didn’t get a certificate until all scenes involving minors were taken out.
Norwegians and Icelanders both delivered some slashers and zombie films in their time but didn’t manage to bring on anything too genuinely offensive. The Danes certainly did, though. You could be familiar with The Sinful Dwarf, a tale of abducted girls drugged and kept in gages as playthings for the grinning title character, his hideous hag of a mother and their so-called-gentlemen friends. That one too is on DVD and easy to get. Despite the sweaty gropings and forced heroin injections, it’s still lightweight compared to what we’ll focus on next, “Why?”. Now this one is something to approach with real caution. A three part documentary focusing on early 70s sex workers like the infamous Bodil Joensen, a specialist in interspecies intercourse, Why? was the most outrageous of the early 70s white coaters, porn films masquerading as socially redeeming docs. You know the type – hygienists and family planners in white outfits give encouragement and solemn advice in between brief segments of real sex. While films like The Language of Love and it’s sequels were basically acceptable to public Why? was definitely more an endurance test that hammered sensibilities with the most extreme sights imaginable, something only for the most headstrong of sensation seekers. The complete version with the Bodil bits intact was apparently screened only in Denmark – would be interesting to read how the film was received and if it was actually shown in regular non-porn cinemas there. Some of the less alarming scenes from the film can be seen in an episode of the BBC documentary Dark Side of Porn, up there in Youtube.
Another Danish title so far denied a comeback in digital form is Jeg Så Jesus Dö / I Saw Jesus Die, a 1975 hardcore porno curio about, yes, the Man himself and his male and female disciples. Basically it’s the savior walking along a gravel road wearing a caftan, with his entourage a few steps behind. After a minute or so of wandering they see a hut or a tavern and decide to go in for a badly filmed and dimly lit orgy. This goes on for an hour or so until they reach the end of the road and the grand crucifixion finale, filled with hilarious ranting and raving. The action itself is repetitive, the costumes and decorations laughable plus the entire cast looks unattractive, yet the film is somehow fascinating and worth trying to track down.
If you’re wondering what to get your folks for next Christmas, this film could be the answer. Think of the faces of your loved ones when they open the package. There are indeed VHS copies floating around so get on your knees and pray and who knows you may find.
Finally, Finland. As recently as in 2015 we managed to get Bunny The Killer Thing into local cinemas and into the DVD market in Germany. Bunny is a furry, mutated homicidal rabbit with a massive erect penis, subjecting your typical irritating teens to rape and senseless slaughter, only not necessarily in that order. This is a “wacky comedy” – you know the type, only tolerable after excess pizza-eating and substance abuse to the max. The jokes are requisitely un-PC and there’s lots of nudity and enough gore to make Lucio gaggle in his grave, so maybe you could have a try.
I wouldn’t advice watching My Way though, even though it’s something completely different. Why write about it then? To quote Mondo movie makers, because it’s our duty to let people know what’s out there. My Way is the personal manifesto of one Teemu Mäki, now a professor in the Aalto University in Helsinki. In 1990, he filmed himself for 90 minutes doing the following: inserting an unlubricated crucifix into his anus in close-up, slicing his fingers and arms open and smearing the blood on dollar bills, standing naked in front of a metal locker cabinet and banging his bleeding nose on the door and then masturbating in closeup, making dedications to Jesus Christ and Samuel Beckett, and finally taking a live cat, hacking it to death with an axe and masturbating over the corpse of the animal in closeup. Into between the acts, he spliced material from piss porn videos. He claims all this was In The Name Of Art, as the aim was to create a commentary on consumerism, and to incessantly jack off his dick. All and all, not a pretty picture. Additional shudder of revulsion: the severe skin problems on Teemu’s shoulders and upper back.
We still had a censorship board in 1990 and when they saw My Way they were not amused. The film was refused a certificate as it featured real animal cruelty, and it was condemned to be shown in art galleries only. Our television was never subject to any censoring though so naturally, the come shot culmination of the cat episode was broadcast on our half past eight network news, watched nightly by just about everybody and their children. People generally went hmmm, I quess all art has it’s beauty but here I just can’t see it.
So, that’s how it is up here. Maybe Scotland will be one of the Nordic countries within a few years? Let’s hope so. Estonia would be great as well, they are easygoing and like to party. Incidentally, the current issue of the Monocle magazine, the bible of all things cool, lists this year’s most liveable cities in the world. Top position: Copenhagen. Good choice. Zurich came second and Helsinki third. Fair enough. All three are big on sustainability and there’s lots of bike lanes. The magazine raved about the museums and restaurants too but it was too shy to even hint at what happens in each city after dark, away from the high end shopping streets. No mention of Copenhagen’s still sleazy Istedgade where world’s first legal porno stores mushroomed up in 1969. Surely the fact that Zurich has actual adult cinemas in operation should have merited a shout, too? Also, had I been consulted for the situation in Helsinki, I would have trotted the writers up the Vaasankatu street, past the domina dungeons and the “private show: lesbian! vibrator! I’ll sit on your face!” bars. We would have spent an hour at Pieni Leffakauppa (The Little Flick Store) inspecting DVD of Japanese gore movies like Naked Blood. From there, it’s a short walk to the worst spot in the city, the Piritori (the heroin square) where addicts and toothless hookers loiter 24 hours a day. A biker exposes himself to a group of singing street evangelists. Two winos on a bench see a third and holler at him to sit down. I can’t, he says, I just shat in my pants. The city in the raw. Much more interesting than the museums.