1970s, Action-Adventure, Horror/Eerie, Western

The White Buffalo (1977)

TheWhiteBuffaloTitleCard
.
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Screenwriter: Richard Sale

By Roderick Heath

Horror films and Westerns long seemed utterly irreconcilable genres. The Western engages official mythologies of nation, history, and society, where the Horror film tends to set them in happy disarray. Horror films court anarchic impulses and dwell in zones of psychological figuration, where Westerns roam large in the world and usually operate by rigid moral parameters. And yet the two genres wield some definite affinities. Both depend upon generating atmosphere as a tangible force, a sense of being at extremes beyond the reign of normality, at the mercy of a random and hostile universe, and often involve clashes of firmly demarcated good and evil enacted by supernormal characters. Horror elements creep through some apparently upright Westerns, including John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960), and Richard Mulligan’s The Stalking Moon (1969), particularly when dealing with the anxious threat of the Native American as the menacing Other surging out of the great western night. The rise of the Spaghetti Western injected Gothic imagery and a spirit sometimes verging on death worship, and entries like Django (1966) and The Great Silence (1968) have strong doses of savage violence and semi-surreal weirdness very close to Horror in nature. In the late 1950s a proper fusion of the two genres was born, dictated by commercial inspirations in combining two ever-popular styles for patrons of drive-ins and grindhouses.
.
TheWhiteBuffalo02
.
The results of this fusion were usually pretty lame if not outright ridiculous: Edward Dehn’s interesting but hesitant Curse of the Undead (1959) kicked off a run of gunfighter-versus-monster films, like William Beaudine’s Billy the Kid vs Dracula (1965) and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966). It wasn’t until the 1970s that some sort of fruitful union of the two began to appear, usually with Western imagery providing a kind of septic spiritual backdrop to Horror, on the likes of The Velvet Vampire (1971), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and Race with the Devil (1975). The ‘80s and ‘90s saw some vigorous attempts to fuse the forms, with the likes of Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher (1986), Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987), Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk ‘Til Dawn (1996), and John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) all calling back to the classic stand-offs of the old school Western with their own wilful tweaks. Most of these films were set in contemporary times, placing them in deliberate tension with the aura of historical remoteness that once again links the Western and the Gothic Horror mould. Wayne Coe’s Grim Prairie Tales (1990) and Antonia Bird’s Ravenous (1999) tried more concertedly to find middle ground for the classic genre moulds. In recent years Horror Westerns have become relatively plentiful as trashy home viewing fodder, but Craig S. Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk (2015) gained real admiration as a rich and gruelling entry that truly understood where the overlap between the genres lies.
.
TheWhiteBuffalo03
.
But The White Buffalo is perhaps the strangest entry in this rarefied mode, and my favourite. Italian movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis was trying to carve out a place for himself in Hollywood in the mid-1970s, and after his interesting if garishly misjudged remake of King Kong (1976) looked to gain commercial traction with tactics well-thumbed in the Italian film industry in particular, by making some oddball cash-ins on recent successes, in this case Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s Jaws (1975). De Laurentiis produced two ambitious, eccentric derivations, The White Buffalo and Orca, the Killer Whale (1977). Orca was the rather more stridently trashy and weird of the two, marrying King Kong’s sympathy-for-the-beast trip to a sub-Herman Melville plotline and going far over the top in its man-versus-beast action. The White Buffalo, on the other hand, was based on a 1974 book by experienced screenwriter and novelist Richard Sale. Both films feature not just battles with marauding animals, but notably strong themes derived from fashionable concerns for ecology and pro-Native American sympathies. Both feature the Muscogee actor Will Sampson, who had gained a measure of stardom thanks to his part as Chief Bromden in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).
.
TheWhiteBuffalo04
.
De Laurentiis hired Sale to adapt his own novel which was published before Benchley’s, and drew more meditatively on their common inspiration, Melville’s Moby-Dick. Sale was an arch professional, but he had evinced an interest in bizarrely spiritual adventure tales with his early novel Not Too Narrow…Not Too Deep, which was filmed under the title Strange Cargo (1940), depicting escaped convicts battling their evil impulses under the watchful eye of a Christlike stranger. The White Buffalo transferred Melville’s scenario to the Old West, and converted it into a metaphor for the clash of civilisations enacted on the western plains as well as the looming death worship underscoring much Old West mythology. Rather than going for any of the young tyros lighting up Hollywood at the time like Spielberg, De Laurentiis preferred hardy professionals to helm his Hollywood forays, often nabbing seasoned British directors, having employed John Guillermin to make King Kong and Michael Anderson on Orca. For The White Buffalo he hired J. Lee Thompson. That Thompson had just worked with the film’s star Charles Bronson on the nifty LA noir flick St. Ives (1976) probably helped. Thompson, like Sale and Bronson, was a weathered old salt of the sound stage. Orson Welles famously dissed him for that once, but Thompson probably took it in his stride, as he was one of those rigorous, skilful, no-bullshit talents who used to make film industries go ‘round.
.
TheWhiteBuffalo05
.
Thompson, who came from a theatrical family and made his start as a playwright, had served as a tail gunner during World War 2. He decamped from Britain to Hollywood after gaining international attention with exactingly crafted, vividly composed movies like Ice Cold In Alex (1958), Tiger Bay, and North West Frontier (both 1959), and soon gained a Best Picture Oscar nomination with The Guns of Navarone (1961). Thompson had a real knack for action-adventure films, often with stories involving small groups overloaded with bristling personalities travelling through dangerous and remote zones, expertly diagramming both group dynamics and faultlines of social perspective as well as his action sequences. But he took on just about every genre in his time, and revealed surprising ability at horror on Eye of the Devil (1967), a film that transmuted Thompson’s feel for colliding worldviews into a different zone, as did the cruel but memorable post-Holocaust melodrama Return From The Ashes (1965). Commercial stumbles in the late ‘60s with Mackenna’s Gold (1968) and The Chairman (1969) saw Thompson sink down the Hollywood totem pole. Thompson nonetheless continued to prove himself invaluable in bringing energetic camerawork and expert storytelling to an odd raft of films, including the last two Planet of the Apes films. Thompson fell into regular collaboration with Bronson until the late ‘80s when Thompson wrapped up his career ingloriously with films like Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987) and Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (1989).
.
TheWhiteBuffalo06
.
The White Buffalo itself was a little too weird for critics and audiences in 1977 and not quite weird enough to gain a cult following. Nonetheless it represents an apotheosis for the ‘70s style of “mud and blood” Western, taking the genre’s new grittiness and outsider empathies up to the threshold of a hallucinatory terminus. It might be one of the offbeat Westerns ever made, but it’s also one of the last not afflicted with any hint of self-conscious nostalgia for the genre’s rapidly fading heyday, whilst also tackling some of the issues causing that wane head-on. Sale’s concept had some felicity, as the notion of a white, monstrous beast representing death is a common one in folklore: Erik Blomberg’s The White Reindeer (1953) had tackled a version found in Sami legend. Here Sale offers it unabashedly as cosmic invocation of the annihilating force unleashed by colonialism and race war, as well as the eternal, personal frontier of reckoning with fate. In a manner reminiscent of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Plainsman (1936), the narrative yokes together great figures of Western lore, in this case the gunfighter James Butler ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok (Bronson) and the great Sioux war chief Crazy Horse (Sampson), who both are predestined in their own way to chase down the eponymous animal.
.
TheWhiteBuffalo07
.
Hickok’s spur is a recurring dream in which he sees a snowy clearing in the woods, the monstrous animal stalking him in the moonlight with terrible purpose. So terrifying is the dream that Hickok often awakens firing off the pistols he sleeps with: he’s lucky not to kill anyone on the train taking him west when he does this, as the bunk above his is unoccupied. Hickok travels under the pseudonym of James Otis, as he’s not keen to advertise his identity on the frontier after a sojourn to New York, considering that so many people want to claim his scalp for the sake of specific grievance or the desire to make a name. The train conductor, Amos Bixby (Douglas Fowley), recognises him easily and reassures him that the last known albino buffalo was recently shot dead by hunters: such creatures, exceptionally rare, were a prized and valuable prey for hunters. But a white buffalo is certainly at large in the Black Hills of the Dakotas. Hunter and prospector Charlie Zane (Jack Warden) barely escapes a small avalanche the powerful beast sets off, and then it charges pell-mell into an Oglala Sioux camp, leaving gored warriors scattered and killing the small child of Crazy Horse and his wife Black Shawl (Linda Moon Redfearn). Stricken with grief, Crazy Horse is renamed Worm by his father, and told to placate his daughter’s spirit and regain his true name he must kill the buffalo and bring back its hide to wrap the child’s body in.
.
TheWhiteBuffalo08
.
When he arrives in Cheyenne by train, Hickok is soon forced to fight for his life when a local Cavalry commander, Captain Tom Custer (Ed Lauter), brother to the better known Colonel, arranges with some of his loutish underlings to ambush Hickok and kill him as payback for an old altercation that saw Hickok kill two of his men. A barman, Paddy Welsh (Bert Williams), who upbraids Custer for his self-serving memory and unsporting purpose, tosses guns to Hickok, allowing him to blow away the soldiers and forcing Custer to flee. Hickok quickly moves on towards the frontier, catching a stagecoach on to Fetterman along the Bozeman Trail, driven by Abel Pickney (the inevitable Slim Pickens) and also carrying Winifred Coxy (Stuart Whitman) and Cassie Ollinger (Cara Williams). Hickok threatens Coxy over using bad language before the lady, but when she releases a string of cuss words Hickok gives up and tries to sleep. The white buffalo itself is hardly the only threatening thing on the loose in the stormy night. When Hickok catches Coxy about to kill and rob him, he forces the cad out of the coach despite the man’s desperate appeals for mercy, and he’s quickly shot dead by Crazy Horse, who tracks the stage’s passage. Crazy Horse later tries to snipe at Hickok when Pickney pulls up beside a pair of dead gold miners left on the roadside. The war chief’s bullet misses Hickok and the gunman drives him off with a fusillade from his pistols.
.
TheWhiteBuffalo09
.
Thompson stages this sequence, the familiar Western situation of a stagecoach journey with some disreputable characters, with a nightmarish lilt, as the conveyance trundles laboriously along muddy roads in pouring rain with lightning flashing, half-seen menaces dashing through the shadows. Mortality is so discounted out in these leagues neither Hickok nor Pickney are terribly bothered when they have to load frozen corpses onto the stagecoach roof. Thompson picks out vivid images of cruel death, in the astounding sequence of the buffalo’s charge through the Sioux camp as the beast’s horns gouge out eyes and rip open bodies in gory flash cuts, and when Coxy lolls in the mud and rain, hands smeared in his own blood. Snowfall turns nightmare to fairy tale but death is just as arbitrary, as Hickok learns when he realises the unfortunate Cassie has been killed by Crazy Horse’s bullet meant for him. Arrival at Fetterman in the bleary, mud-strewn morning finds old coot Amos Briggs (John Carradine) burying two men who killed each-other in a fight, inspired seemingly by one swearing he’d seen the white buffalo. Hickok visits local madam and former flame “Poker” Jenny Schermerhorn (Kim Novak), who’s following the frontier with her special services. But Hickok takes his leave of her after another nightmare of the buffalo sees him blast away the fake white buffalo head she hangs on her bedroom wall.
.
TheWhiteBuffalo10
.
The White Buffalo carefully builds up mirroring aspects to Hickok and Crazy Horse, noting that both men are using pseudonyms in trying to avoid their worldly status whilst pursuing their private missions. Each deals out annihilation with casual ease although neither sees himself as an aggressor – Hickok blows away Custer’s soldiers trying to kill him just as Crazy Horse shoots men intruding on his land and fights off a rival tribe’s braves. Both are dogged by enemies from their own nominal nations as well as the foes they’ve unstintingly earned in the frontier wars between Europeans and natives, and the two finally move into wary mutual respect and friendliness when Hickok decides to help Crazy Horse fend out some of his Indian enemies. But they’re also propelled by very different urges. Hickok is pushed towards his confrontation with the beast by the call of his own dream-world communion with death, whilst Crazy Horse has a far more personal motivation, driven to avenge his daughter in the same way he’s obliged to protect his ancestral homelands from the invading whites. Hickok has a dose of syphilis slowly corroding away his body and mind and can’t take bright light, and the pair of vintage dark glasses he perpetually wears are reminiscent of those worn by Vincent Price in Roger Corman’s Poe adaptation The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). Hickock is unsure at first whether the prophecy he seeks to fulfil is real or just a product of his decaying wits. He fends off Jenny’s amorous advances although, as she comments, “I probably dosed you myself.”
.
TheWhiteBuffalo11
.
Thompson and Bronson’s collaboration seemed to be fuelled by a strong suggestion of mutual recognition, a sense transmuted into the film and Hickok and Crazy Horse’s screen amity. Bronson praised Thompson’s to-the-point style and economy on set, something a coal miner’s son made good like the former Charles Buchinsky appreciated. Beyond that, both men seemed to share an understanding as talented guys who nonetheless found themselves increasingly reconciled to servicing an ever-narrowing notion of what they were good for, and continuing to work for the sake of sheer professional cussedness. Bronson had become a big star in the 1970s playing variations on the terse-talking, stone-faced, death-dealing persona he’d perfected in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), including in huge hits like Death Wish (1974), but sometimes he tried to stretch his persona and occasionally reminded moviegoers he had a latent romantic streak and a talent for dry comedy on movies like St. Ives and the wonderful From Noon ‘Til Three (1976). Bronson’s Hickok probes Bronson’s screen persona as a dealer of death and picks up the same notion of the Western hero who finds he’s live long enough to become a victim of his own legend as in From Noon ‘Til Three. Hickok has just returned from performing on the New York stage with Buffalo Bill Cody, serving up that mythology to audiences. Now Hickok tries to outrun his one real talent, as a killer, returning to a territory where the myth is still being played out and the costs on the intimate, human level still flagrant.
.
TheWhiteBuffalo12
.
Identity is a performance in The White Buffalo, but the typecasting also runs deep. Novak’s Poker Jenny affectionately calls Hickok “Cat-Eyes” for the mesmerising beauty she once saw in his killer gaze, most ironically, when he was in the heat of battle rather than love. Sale seems to have taken some licence from the encrusting of folklore that built up around Hickok in particular, like the fact that he supposedly had odd premonitions, like fearing Deadwood would be the last town he would visit – the new settlement is mentioned fleetingly by Zane – and of course the totemic meaning of his legendary last hand of aces and eights Hickok would hold before being shot in the back. So, here Hickok is a protagonist drawn on to his great duel by prophetic dreams and blessed with an intimate relationship with the great beyond. Aspects of The White Buffalo anticipate Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1996) in conjuring a spiritual western, where adventure out into the wilderness becomes an allegory for confronting mortality. Both films regard with horrified fascination the great mountains of bones built up by buffalo hunters, engaged in wiping out the food source for the unpliable plains nations, and consider the American West as a vast amphitheatre of annihilation. Charlie Zane reports to Hickok seeing the white buffalo standing off the other Custer and his 7th Cavalry soldiers at a river crossing, bringing the touch of imminent demise to them too.
.
TheWhiteBuffalo13
.
“You know what I hate more than anything else in this world?” Hickok asks Zane as he contemplates the inevitable journey out into the mountains to court his destiny: “Even more than dying? Being afraid.” Mastery of death, the honed talent for dealing it out, is in Western mythology necessary for life, for civilisation and order to take hold; that’s the essence of the genre. But it’s also, equally, a fact that must be put to bed as soon as its end is accomplished, the corollary to the myth enacted in many a movie like Shane (1953) and The Searchers. “It was like you were fighting Armageddon with Satan himself,” Jenny declares after Hickok’s riddled her bedroom walls with bullets following one of his dreams, and though the fight with the real buffalo appears to only be a confrontation with a wild animal, its seems to have just such a spiritual import. The demonic bull awaiting Hickok and Crazy Horse becomes a mystical task only two great death-dealers can take on, the task of putting down the rampaging incarnation of death, in order to give some sort of peace to the anguished spirit of the place and allow the possibility of eventual peace. Hickok seems to unconsciously sense this as he ruefully considers the chance of developing a real rapport with Crazy Horse, although a ticking time bomb threatens to wreck their amity: Hickok is considered a callous and committed enemy for shooting dead one of their chiefs, a man who was called The Peacemaker. Before he properly encounters Crazy Horse, Hickok survives another attempt to shut his eyes, this time at the hands of the hulking “Whistling Jack” Kileen (Clint Walker), out for vengeance because one of the soldiers Hickok shot down in Cheyenne was his son.
.
TheWhiteBuffalo14
.
Hickok meets up with Zane, an old comrade, in a memorably bustling, grimy tavern for miners called the Frozen Dog, a place where men line up to sleep with the couple of frazzled prostitutes on hand and otherwise get drunk and gamble; it’s the standard frontier dive as rendered by Breughel or Bosch, one even Peckinpah and Altman might have turned their noses up at. Zane helps Hickok blow away several of Kileen’s gun-toting friends, and the two head out into the mountains, trying to keep a step ahead of further reprisals as well as track their quarry. Hickok falls in with the ornery Zane, who has a glass eye and a general contempt for Indians, one that Hickok protests he shares, and yet he soon proves to be surprisingly proficient in the courtesies of Native American negotiations as he deals with Crazy Horse. The war chief pays back Hickok for his help by saving him from Kileen when he ambushes Hickok and keeps him pinned down, riddling Kileen and his confederate with arrows after sneaking up on them by pretending to be a wolf. Knowing the white buffalo is close after it gores one of their tethered horses, the hunters settle down to wait out a snowstorm and hammer out their fractious philosophies around the campfire.
.
TheWhiteBuffalo15
.
The White Buffalo has an odd rhythm at first, almost tripping over its own feet in rushing through early scenes and utilising some patched-on narration by Fowley to fill in the gaps, probably the result of studio tampering to get the film down to its current runtime of just over an hour and a half (Thompson and Bronson’s follow-up Caboblanco, 1980, would be more seriously wrecked by this). But rather than being gutted, this only seems to have compressed the film’s essence, managing to evoke a sense of the Wild West that is, in its way, as epic and disorientating as something like Apocalypse Now (1979), with which it bears kinship as a trek towards the edge of human experience enacted as a physical journey, a succession of vignettes illustrating a zone of life where history and morality are in a state of flux. Thompson’s highly mobile, often lunging camera, mediated by DP Paul Lohmann, heightens the feeling of being constantly dragged on by a current through a flooded cave. Sale’s brand of frontier lingo with its blend of archaic grammar and salty directness is constantly in evidence (one favourite line, from Carradine, in explaining the cause of death for two corpses he’s burying: “This one with the moccasins allowed as how this one was a fork-tonged lying asshole.”)
.
TheWhiteBuffalo16
.
One aspect that ties The White Buffalo together with great authority is John Barry’s superb score, evoking in the opening dream sequence a sense of foreboding, a mood that pervades the entire film; indeed, it’s one of the great Horror movie scores. Discordant strings hint at the presence of numinous influences and lurking fear, whilst deep, sonorous brass signifies the force of the buffalo and what it represents. One of the film’s greatest moments comes when Thompson stages a breathtaking long-range zoom shot that pulls back as Hickok dashes down a snow-clad slope in pursuit of his foe, revealing the small and hapless human amidst a vast mountain landscape under roiling storm clouds, Barry’s music surging with grand, sepulchral menace. The cathedral of nature is a place where Crazy Horse’s mode of spiritual understanding reigns, and communing with the wind and sky and the stone bulwarks means negotiating the dreams dark and light of the universe, and the path of the white buffalo leads Hickok into Kileen’s trap. There was some irony in Thompson finding his niche in action films given that his wartime experiences had left him a considered pacifist. But that tension surely informed the particular strength of much of his work in the adventure film mould, as he thrived on depicting microcosms where characters come into conflict because of violent schisms in their most stubborn faiths.
.
TheWhiteBuffalo17
.
Situations like the cross-country train trip in the midst of a religious war in North West Frontier and the problems of using expedience against great evil versus personal feeling in The Guns of Navarone were ideal for Thompson, although he could also wield it in a setting like Eye of the Devil, where adherence to a pagan faith clashes with traditional religion and modernity but unsettles both with fervent promise. Here this manifests in the uneasy endeavour by Hickok and Crazy Horse to understand each-other’s perspectives is one of the most interesting and meaty attempts in any Western to depict such a negotiation. Hickok ripostes to the Sioux chief’s claims that they were given their territory by divine providence that his people won in conquest over neighbouring tribes, and that the white man is only doing the same thing. Crazy Horse counters in turn that at least they did it honourably. “That’s a thing called progress.” Hickok states, to Crazy Horse’s sharp retort: “It’s a thing called greed.” Finally Hickok tries to tell Crazy Horse, to Charlie’s delight and Hickok’s rueful warning, that no matter what kind of stand he makes, sooner or later the whites will swamp his nation with sheer numbers and terrible weaponry. Crazy Horse declares his intention to die trying, but he and Hickok nonetheless make a pact of brotherhood and not to fight each-other in the future, much to Charlie’s disgust. Nonetheless Crazy Horse has no intention of leaving the white buffalo to them, and he sneaks out in pursuit of the beast. But all three men are destined to converge on a landscape Hickok recognises in shock from his dream, and declares, “If this is the night I was born for then so be it.”
.
TheWhiteBuffalo18
.
The buffalo itself is seen fairly early in the film as it rampages through the Sioux camp, but lurks for much of the time glimpsed in fragmented close-ups of a balefully glaring eye and curling maw. The animal was cleverly realised in animatronic form by Carlo Rambaldi, who would gain repute a few years later for creating the title character of Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982); it’s a little marvel of pre-CGI monster making. Thompson offers astonishing images of the buffalo charging through underbrush, barrelling out of the night and careening by the hunters: Hickok seems to have a perfect shot at the beast but realises too late his trigger’s become caked with ice, and almost finishes up skewered on its horns. The hunt builds to the grand moment reminiscent of John Huston’s film of Melville, when Crazy Horse manages to spring onto its back and stabs its hump furiously with a handful of arrows, red blood caking white fur, until it throws him and bounds away. The hunt proves a real battle but also one invested with a ritual quality, hinted at through Hickok’s premonitions and the way the buffalo behaves, sneaking up on its foes as if just as determined to wipe them out as they are it. Finally a few quick-draw shots from Hickok manage to bring the buffalo down just before it crashes into him and Crazy Horse.
.
TheWhiteBuffalo19
.
The White Buffalo was widely criticised upon release for not spelling out what the symbolic thesis is here, but to me, that’s precisely what makes it so intriguing, as the underlying drama is constantly suggested and delineated without needing to be overtly stated. D.H. Lawrence’s diagnosis of the death dream at the heart of the frontier warrior legend finds a suggested purpose as great gunfighter and war chief perform their allotted metaphysical task, enacting blood rite and spiritual cleansing. Hickok defends Crazy Horse’s right to take the hide nonetheless to an outraged Zane. The coot stomps off after accidentally letting slip Hickok’s real name to Crazy Horse, who declares with sad solemnity to the gunfighter that although they’re now brothers in spirit they can’t ever meet again without being obliged to enact their roles as avatars of their societies, “and we will both solve the great mystery.” The film fades out to fake tintype images of the two men, noting the similarity of their ages and the fact both would soon be murdered. As the film would have it, they succeeded in reining in the dominion of the death dream, but at the cost of offering themselves up as sacrifices to the violent gods they were committed to worshipping without understanding why. The White Buffalo stands as a unique achievement for both the Western and the Horror film in the way it manages to outdo the likes of Sergio Leone and Mario Bava on one crucial level, by leading both back genres to the same inception point in primal mythology, the battles of culture heroes with the monstrosities born of perverted natural order, given a new and coherent shape in terms of history.

The White Buffalo can be viewed here.

Standard
1950s, Action-Adventure, Finnish cinema, Horror/Eerie

The White Reindeer (1953)

Valkoinen Peura

Director/Coscreenwriter: Erik Blomberg

By Roderick Heath

It could be argued that all stories we generally refer to under the bracket of ‘horror’ today are in essence a type of folklore, rooted as so many are in storytelling modes descended from ancient cultural forms. To trace the genre’s persistence is to track it backwards through stages in the development, from the age of the urban myth to Freudian symbolic imagery to the haunted mood of Enlightenment-born gothic tales, on through medieval morality plays to the campfire tale. Such stories generations once narrated and sustained to keep themselves entertained and to keep the kids close by the warm and flickering firelight. Such a story could blend a warning about the eyes glowing in the dark beyond the limit of the hearth’s glow and also of other varieties of wolf, the kind hiding behind familiar faces and friendly smiles. As far as horror cinema goes, however, works that engage in authentic folkloric motifs and tales are relatively thin on the ground. The White Reindeer straddles the zone of such arcane storytelling precepts and more immediately recognisable generic necessities, offering what is in essence a werewolf tale, adapted to specific cultural climes, in this case the folklore of the Sami peoples of northern Finland, and mediated through the sorts of figurations one would expect from the setting.

True to its roots in such a tradition, The White Reindeer is more than a ghoul story. It’s also an anthropological recording and observation that has some resemblance to the style of documentary Robert Flaherty had made, capturing a powerful sense of life on the outermost fringes of European civilisation. It’s a creation that manages to bely the inevitable fact that it was fashioned by a collective of technicians and actors, and instead give you the feeling it’s been dreamt into existence. Of course, it’s actually an artful and carefully fashioned work of film craft. Director Erik Blomberg had been working in the Finnish film scene since the 1930s, and his readiness to step between roles as screenwriter and cinematographer perhaps testifies to a jack-of-all-trades necessity in the Finnish film scene of the time, serving in both capacities on the 1938 film The Stolen Death, for instance. Blomberg started directing documentaries in the mid-1940s, and with The White Reindeer made his feature debut. Blomberg’s documentarian experience and eye are evident in the film, as the film serves in part as a time capsule and piece of reportage looking at the lifestyles of the frozen north and its inhabitants, capturing social and communal rituals as a reindeer-drawn sled race and a bonfire night.

The White Reindeer contains relatively little dialogue in the usual dramatic movie fashion, and commences with a sequence where the story unfolds as a silent film with narration offered in song, a chanted account of the events that result in the birth of young Pirita (Mirjami Kuosmanen). Pirita’s mother Maarita (also Kuosmanen) laboriously forges a path through snowy wilderness, and gives birth to her daughter in a hut belonging to a frontier family who give her refuge. This approach helps The White Reindeer gain traction in its desire to evoke and reproduce a tradition of oral storytelling, whilst also making a show out of the method Blomberg adopts in converting that tradition into cinematic terms. A rhapsodic chain of images as Maarita flees across the endless expanses pursued by wolves, finds shelter with the family, and gives birth to a healthy girl before expiring, resolves in the matriarch holding the stranger’s child in her arms as the flames of the hearth surge high, dissolving into a vision of the snowclad land riddled with veins and caressed by veils of spindrift.

A tale of fire and ice is in motion, in which the landscape charted veers between the transient warmth and security of human habitations, huts and tents, lovers’ arms and family embraces, and the blasted reaches of Scandinavia’s extreme latitudes. Unseen forces rule out there, old gods that ignore the intrusion of Christianity and scarcely tolerate civilisation, offering prizes to the hardy and extracting punishments from the foolhardy with haughty will. The lyrics sung over the opening sequence describe the story that’s going to unfold, imposing a frame of eerie and disastrous fate. Blomberg’s approach here suggests he was taking some ideas from Sergei Eisenstein and his similar method for mediating the present’s vision of the past through layers of filmic conjuring and aesthetic devices on Alexander Nevsky (1938), which similarly forged such a bridge with lyrical music. Once the story moves on a couple of decades to when Pirita has grown into a woman, the hushed and ominous choral recitation gives way to immediate experience, collective clamour, and sensual excitement. Fierce and unflinching young Pirita participates in a sled race, and finds herself battling Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä), who only just manages to best her in the race after all other competitors have been left far behind. The thrill of competition instantly transmutes into erotic excitement as Aslak lassos the dark beauty and draws her in for an embrace. The couple are quickly married after the industrious reindeer herder Aslak offers an impressive bride price to her adoptive father. The wedding proves a scene of drunken merriment and general randy energy as the closest thing the local community has to a nob declares, “There is no more booze, the bread and salt are eaten,” so it’s time to clear out and let the couple get down to business. The young women of the village have to be cleared out forcibly in their delighted attempts to get an eyeful.

Pirita soon finds her marital bliss despoiled when Aslak must go off into the countryside for long stretches to round up wild reindeer. As a sign of devotion, Aslak brings back a white reindeer calf, a valuable and lucky find, and gives it to her as a pet. But Pirita finds herself lying awake at night even when Aslak has returned to her bed, as he falls asleep in exhaustion, leaving her pining for sexual pleasure. She elects to visit the local shaman, Tsalkku-Nilla (Arvo Lehesmaa), to find a way of forcing her husband and other men to find her irresistible. Pirita’s naughty peccadilloes quickly start to reap a cheerless reward. Tsalkku-Nilla performs a rite for Pirita and informs her that she will have to take the first living thing she encounters after leaving his hut up to a remote altar in the countryside consecrated to the goddess Maddar Ahkk, and sacrifice that thing if she wants the spell to work properly. Tsalkku-Nilla beats upon a decorated ritual drum, bouncing around a rune stone upon its taut face, but when the stone begins to dance spontaneously as Pirita touches the drum in what seems a momentary fit of incantatory detachment, the shaman realises she has the powers of a witch.

Pirita treks back to her home and finds Aslak has returned from his trip, and stands before their hut caressing her white reindeer. Electing to take the chance of sacrificing the reindeer, she leads the animal out to the altar, which is surrounded by reindeer antlers jutting from the ice from the other times people have attempted such invocations. Pirita slaughters her pet, but an icy wind starts to blow and assails her, the first sign that she has offended the gods. Pirita soon establishes her magic has worked, as she now easily compels male eyes, but finds she now has the unbidden power to transform into a white reindeer. Heading out into the countryside in an attempt to find her husband, Pirita accepts the offer of some herders to camp with them for the night. But she turns into a white reindeer under the full moon and stalks the land about the camp. A herder named Niilo sees her in the night and gives chase, tracking her into a remote ravine referred to by the locals as the Demon’s Valley. When he catches her, she transforms back into human form. Niilo is dazzled by her beauty until she rips his throat out with sprouting fangs. Soon she commits more vampiric killings, all following the same pattern, and the locals become increasingly wary and vengeful. Pirita is lucky not to be outed as the monster when one of her victims, a hunter who was lucky to survive one of her attacks, sees her face looming in the flicker of firelight during a village celebration and recognises her. He goes berserk and tries to chase her down, but he’s tackled and restrained by his friends, who think he’s delirious.

Blomberg and Kuosmanen collaborated on the screenplay of The White Reindeer, exemplifying what seems to have been a productive romantic collaboration that ended when Kuosmanen retired from acting in 1956. She later died lamentably young at 48 in 1963. The film’s ironic study of romantic disaffection and marital grief suggests a sarcastic form of self-analysis, laced with irony in its realisation and sparked by Blomberg’s evident and obvious obsession with Kuosmanen’s face, an instrument with the same cast of dark, sharp, vulpine charisma that would soon make Barbara Steele a horror icon. Blomberg’s success with The White Reindeer earned him and Finnish film a level of international attention it had not known before, especially after Jean Cocteau and the Cannes jury he headed gave it a special prize. And yet Blomberg would only make four more features before the Finnish movie scene fell into a rut in the late 1950s. It’s not hard to see why The White Reindeer made such an impression in its time, over and above its raw cinematic qualities. A kind of pop anthropological and internationalist cultural interest boomed in the post-war years, fuelled by newly open channels of travel and communication, a process that would help many international filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa find worldwide audiences.

This accorded with many national movie industries both trying to relocate a sense of history and advertise themselves to the world with vignettes of localised flavour. The White Reindeer bolsters its standing as authentic product of a burgeoning culture by sporting a score by the country’s most notable composer of the period, Einar Englund. True to his creed as a cinematographer, Blomberg generates some extraordinary visuals throughout The White Reindeer, including a breathtaking shot of a Sami tent, aglow in firelight, framed against a dark plain and iron sky, studded with abstracted trees. This vision of an islet of human society subsisting in the face of a cold and indifferent universe quickly segues into Pirita’s transformation into the reindeer, visualised through the expedient of turning the image into a photographic negative so that white beast skips across black snow, a simple trick reminiscent of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: Eine Symphone des Grauens (1922). The bonfire night sequence sees characters wheeling in and out of the fields of firelight, punctuated by an eruption of fearful violence, as the troubled witness sees Pirita’s face looking stygian in the flicker, causing him to leap up, clutching a fiery brand, sparks flying and bodies wheeling within the little galaxies of the hearths.

The White Reindeer was released at a time when the genre was almost entirely fallow, supplanted by the science fiction craze of the early decade, presenting as it did avatars for an age busy congratulating itself on its rationality whilst inflating its neuroses to colossal, city-smashing scale, all the better to be cut down to size. The White Reindeer, on the other hand, betrays knowledge that it’s dealing in a metaphorical coin, but might also be the first major horror film to essentially reject the suggestive model of Val Lewton’s psychosomatic etudes and return to essential figurations, even as it tells a story with evident similarities to Cat People (1942). Lewton liked to smudge the borders between the liminal and the subliminal, to ask the question whether the menace of the supernatural is real or a construction of credulity. Blomberg and Kuosmanen’s approach instead uses the inherent symbolism in the idea of the shapeshifting woman to communicate its ideas, and so finds new power, ironically, in an archaic way of explaining human nature. The heavy emphasis linking supernatural manifestation and erotic anxiety, and its relatively unabashed confrontation of sexuality as a governing theme, could even make The White Reindeer a vital nexus in the history of the genre. Here might well be the point where horror film began reinventing itself, with a newly modern understanding of the forces at play in the genre’s symbology, and the understanding that the greatest source of terror even in the atomic age is the lurking irrationality lying within the human frame.

In more concrete terms, it’s hard not to see Blomberg’s images of Kuosmanen’s terrible beauty studded with vampiric fangs, eyes alight with a lust that conflates hunger for both blood and sexual excitement, and not see the germ for Terence Fisher’s approach to his vampires in works like The Brides of Dracula (1960). Likewise the lifetime-spanning narrative that traces an individual’s entrapment and destruction by predestined forces seems to have left a mark on Fisher’s Curse of the Werewolf (1960). Blomberg shot the film himself, and the intensity with which his cinematography weaves in with his vision of remote and legendary climes anticipates Mario Bava’s similar capacity. Closer to home, Blomberg might well have encouraged Ingmar Bergman to look closer at Scandinavian mythology and come up with his own peculiar version of them in The Virgin Spring, which looks precisely at the time when the pagan world Blomberg records met and was uneasily replaced by Christianity. The White Reindeer is also striking as one of the relatively few horror movies made before 1960 to sport a feminine monster, and the essence of the film’s baleful power lies in the collaboration that sees Blomberg’s gaze turned upon relentlessly upon Kuosmanen’s face and her performing with it, tracing out all of Pirita’s careening emotions, as both demonic entity and ordinary woman.

The White Reindeer describes one of the eternal fixtures of folklore, the demon lover. It also records a basic anxiety about female sexuality, timorous in the face of satiating it and apprehensive that it might drive any lady afflicted with greater than normal appetites to satisfy them in ways that betray herself and her assigned social role. But Blomberg and Kuosmanen’s approach to it makes Pirita no mere temptress. The struggle between the two forces opposite and equal within her is enacted in a manner that’s less like the clear-cut dichotomy of good human and wild beast as witnessed in The Wolf Man (1941) than it resembles characters in later generations of horror cinema like protagonists of David Cronenberg’s early work or Andrezej Zulawski’s Possession (1981), those who are driven to fashion their terrible interior struggles into new and perverse forms of flesh. Pirita’s nature is manifold, both child of the surging sky and the embracing hut, and her actions, whether cringing in shame or unleashing her dark side, are all a part of her. The reindeer is source of all industry and a great deal of human cultural activity in these blasted climes, and the fusion of the two has an inevitable quality in this place of flux, where the sun bristles low on the horizon and the landscape loses form amidst snow drifts and skeletal, thrusting branches, a place where it’s hard to get one’s bearings. Blomberg still contrives to shoot his pictures seeking out covert geometries, as if suggesting the unseen powers and subtle influences that shape the lives of these people, found in lines of skiers diagonally dividing the frame, or, in the film’s most reproduced imagery, viewing Kuosmanen through the frame of dead reindeer antlers jutting from the snow just as she’s on the fateful threshold of committing her blasphemous act.

Aspects of the story that resonate throughout other mythologies are particularly tantalising – the animism and motifs of transgression and transformation, the fatefully fused but doomed lovers, the act of forging a special weapon with a care and intention that transcends mere craft to become a totemic object. The necessary but failed sacrifice of a loved-one resembles that found in the tale of the Lambton Worm, another story of monstrous reckoning and legacy. The white hue of the monster obviously calls to mind Moby Dick and his many descendants, with the same inference of spectral stature, the haunting tone of bloodlessness, here also rhymes with the snow that cakes the earth itself, a constant fact and sometime enemy in the lives of the Sami, the hard natural order that claims its price heedless of human feeling. The locals discuss how only “cold iron” can be used to kill a phantom reindeer when bullets won’t hurt it, so all the villagers begin forging their own lances, and Pirita wanders the commune hearing the hammers on forges beating out her doom with bloodcurdling music. She soon almost loses control and attacks her husband when he’s dozing after finishing off his own iron lance. Aslak awakens with a fearful cry when, in bleary half-sleep, he thinks he sees his own wife’s face transformed into a leering, demonic visage – which is exactly what he has seen, but assumes he’s been dreaming.

One incidental problem The White Reindeer has to deal with is that even the largest and most bullish reindeer doesn’t really look that ferally threatening, which probably explains Blomberg’s decision to have Pirita turn back into a human before her killings – the sight of Kuosmanen’s vicious teeth is more alarming than the frankly huggable deer. Although The White Reindeer is a short and deftly compressed piece of storytelling, Blomberg still conjures some tremendously rhythmic sequences, and forges images that seem to claw at the edges of all intellectual awareness in trying to evoke a distant, submerged past still to be found in some Jungian netherworld. This sensibility is particularly apparent in the build to Pirita’s sacrifice of the pet reindeer, in the splendidly odd scene when she sits down with Tsalkku-Nilla where what seems like boastful eccentricity and peasant magic shade quickly into something altogether more abnormal and threatening until the shaman recoils from Pirita in fear. The sequence of Pirita’s journey to the shrine of Maddar Ahkka is a delirious conjuration of image and sound, Englund’s music painting wild sonic textures as Pirita struggles through the snow to reach a hill top where dead reindeer antlers sprout from the ground like a crop. Here a stone cairn capped by more antlers seems to stare out upon the land with stark and sinister promise, and Pirita withers and faints in the sudden tempest that falls upon the mountain.

Equally good are the climactic scenes, after Pirita is finally driven to flee the village after accidentally turning into the reindeer: as in many variations on the Jekyll and Hyde story, her ability to control when and why she changes form is steadily eroded until she transmogrifies in a public place in the middle of the day, and is then hunted across the countryside by the massed village menfolk. Pirita first tries to return to Tsalkku-Nilla and get him to help her, only to find him dead in his hut, glazed in ice, his drum smashed, as if the spirits he stirred have avenged themselves brutally. Pirita then heads to the pagan altar, but there her pleas fall upon deaf ears, and she is once again driven back into the wilds. Blomberg shoots Kuosmanen loping across a ridge with a fascinating, predatory gait, achieving a quality of unnaturalness that David Lynch has often instilled in his actors when depicting similar breakdowns in the walls between the tangible and the subliminal. True to many werewolf stories, Pirita is doomed to be destroyed by the unthinking hand of a loved one, in this case her own husband. Aslak corners her in the Demon’s Valley and skewers her with his lance, only to be confronted with her splayed human form on the snow. Blomberg returns for a brief, meditative glance at the winnowing spindrift flowing over frigid snow, before fading to black, as if to say our rent on Earth is brief, and how the time we have upon it treats us often has little to do with how we will it, but which forces have conspired to bring us into being.

Standard