Koko-Di-Koko-Da / Swallow

KOKO-DI-KOKO-DA (LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2019)

Johannes Nyholm’s film starts with a mother, Erin (Ylva Gallon) suffering a bout of food poisoning which leaves her face swollen so that she looks, as her husband Tobias (Leif Edlund Johansson) jests, like Freddy Kruger. The comic overtones of this little drama then give way to a genuinely appalling scene in which the couple serenade their apparently sleeping little girl with ‘Happy Birthday’, unaware that she has died in the night.

There’s no coming back from that, as the film goes on to acknowledge by stranding the couple, two years down the line, in a series of nightmares in which they are brutally attacked by malign versions of the characters decorating their daughter’s music box. Well not exactly nightmares – the film creates a sustained version of that feeling you get on waking from a bad dream where for a moment you believe that it really happened. And for these characters, the worst has happened.

The extent to which the nightmare is a shared experience for the couple is never clear, a reflection of the uncertain state of the relationship. Initially, the dream is seen from Tobias’ point of view, and it is about strategies of avoidance, never successful, with Erin always dying first and him waking just before being killed. But when the perspective shifts to Erin there is a movement towards acceptance. A couple of poignant animations illuminate this tendency, working against the bleakness – and the idea that this is a horror film.

Horror films don’t generally deal with ‘real horror’ – they cloak it in metaphor, or they hint at it, or they treat it as a game. This confronts the trauma, and tries to find a way forward, which also means trying to escape the conventions of genre. It is in the husband’s attempts to evade his dream-fate that the film is at its most generic – the contrast between his approach to the horror and that of his wife suggests a critique of horror-as-entertainment along the lines of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games.

This is however, less grimly punitive of the viewer than Haneke’s film – there’s a jet-black humour at work here as well as a sense of the film reaching out towards the possibility of something more hopeful. There’s a question over how far this quest for healing can go before we are no longer in the territory of horror, but however it is characterised, Koko-Di-Koko-Da is unnerving, clever and heartfelt.

SWALLOW (FRIGHTFEST HALLOWEEN)

Swallow moves even further away from horror, while still managing to get a showing at a horror film festival. Not that it doesn’t have an air of menace about it, creating around its heroine a kind of Gothic situation without any of the traditional trappings. Haley Bennett plays Hunter, a woman of uncertain background marrying into a wealthy family and profoundly uneasy about her position. His family aren’t much help: ‘What did you do for money before you met my son?’, her mother-in-law (Elizabeth Marvel) asks early on.

Through it all Hunter smiles bravely, hoping that it is enough to be nice, knowing deep down that it isn’t. She becomes pregnant, but this doesn’t help since it immediately becomes clear that the baby (the ‘future CEO of the company’ as her father-in-law calls it) belongs to the family in a way that she does not, and never will.

If this makes her feel less than substantial, she offsets that by developing a compulsion to swallow household objects: a marble, a tin-tack, then larger, more improbable or dangerous items – because there’s also an element of self-harm about this. Many of these objects reappear from one or another orifice, and these she puts on display like trophies. Once a scan at the hospital brings her strange obsession to light, her parents-in-law (with her husband’s consent) bring a psychiatric nurse/security guard into the house to keep and eye on her and thus protect their investment – the baby, not her.

Sessions with a psychotherapist, paid for by the family (who expect the therapist to tell them everything) reveal that Hunter was the child of a rape, and the only reason her mother didn’t abort her was that she is ‘a religious nut’ – ‘And here I am’, she concludes with a heartbreaking lack of conviction.

Eventually she flees her home and the family’s attempt to have her committed, and finds catharsis by confronting her father (Denis O’Hare) and having an abortion (the absorption and expulsion of the objects having been a kind of rehearsal for this, I suppose).

The early part of the film has a queasy fascination that recalls David Cronenberg, and Haley Bennet’s performance is transfixing – a quiet intensity is maintained throughout, and the outcome is genuinely moving. There’s also a compelling irony in the film’s obsessive concentration on its central character, which can’t help but turn her into an object like the ones she swallows. I was reminded of Isabella Eklöf’s Holiday though Hunter is much less opaque than Sascha, that film’s protagonist, more like a Russian doll with further dolls nested inside her. Yet there is a similar sense of a woman being traded as a commodity.

The difference is that for Hunter escape is a possibility – more than that, actually, which is where this, like Koko-Di-Koko-Da, seems to move towards a deeper resolution than horror generally offers. Horror films may have happy endings of course – in the simplest terms, the monster can be killed. But the monster is a metaphor, and what he represents can’t be destroyed so easily. This tackles the source of the unease – it’s enough to make a horror fan uneasy.

The director, Carlo Mirabella-Davis, phoning in from the States for the Q&A, used the phrase ‘elevated horror’ without apparent irony. While we can certainly do without that, these films mess with the genre in a way that does seem to demand a new classification: not quite anti-horror (if that can even exist). Enlightened horror, anyone?

Leave a Reply