The Best Horror Movie of 1952: The White Reindeer

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The Best Horror Movie of 1952: <i>The White Reindeer</i>

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

For the last time in the early 1950s, we have a year with very little horror output—at least from the American film industry, anyway. Even after the arrival of American sci-fi horror films in 1950 and 1951, this year is a serious gap, salvaged only by a collection of diverse horror flicks from outside the U.S.

From Germany we have Mandragore, a film that stoked fears about the ethical ramifications of the scientific breakthrough of artificial insemination, in a tale about a “soulless” woman born as the result of a science experiment gone wrong. The U.K. contributes Ghost Ship, while Finland produces the influential, vampiric horror-fantasy The White Reindeer.

The few low-key films produced in the U.S., meanwhile, feel a bit like they’re clinging to the past. The Black Castle stars Karloff in a gothic romance tale with only mild horror elements, while the farcical Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is exactly as derivative and inessential as that title would make it sound—a film that could easily have been produced in 1942 rather than 1952. All in all, this is a real low point for American-produced horror, but 1953 will be the start of a serious revival.

1952 Honorable Mentions: Beware, My Lovely, Mandragore, Ghost Ship, The Black Castle

The Film: The White Reindeer

Director: Erik Blomberg

Nearly 70 years before Ari Aster’s Midsommar exposed many genre fans to the thought of horrific actions occurring in broad daylight under the unnatural, perpetual glare of the midnight sun, The White Reindeer already contained kernels of the very same idea. Produced in Finland and shot in Lapland, the country’s northernmost point, there’s an authentic element of agoraphobic isolation present in this film that is impossible to fake. It automatically ramps up the tension in every scene, being armed with the knowledge that these people are impossibly distant from any form of help or rescue.

The White Reindeer is a truly fantastical film, whose snowscapes dotted with occasional dead trees make it stand out in beautiful black-and-white contrast. Tonally, it’s an utterly unique hodgepodge of genre influences, teetering between Eastern European fantasy and the noir-inflected American psychological horror films of Val Lewton—especially Cat People, with which this movie shares some serious thematic DNA. It’s the story of a woman named Pirita, played fabulously by Finnish actress Mirjami Kuosmanen, who meets a man and settles down in a remote country homestead. But with her husband often away for long periods, the young wife grows remorsefully lonely, pining for companionship. After visiting a local shaman for a solution to her problem, Pirita finds the results are more than she bargained for, being cursed with a condition that begins leaving the area’s … thirsty … young men as frozen corpses.

What we have here, then, is one part fairytale and one part psychological horror meltdown, leaning heavily on its contrastingly bright and shadowy cinematography and the strength with which Kuosmanen sells her transformation into something more than human. The landscapes, accessible only by ski and sled, give the story an alien air to it, as if these characters are explorers living on the surface of a foreign world, rather than the same planet where throngs of tourists are simultaneously walking down the streets of London or Paris. The unbearably cold bleakness of those frozen landscapes are the film’s signature; imagery it shares with only a few other notable horror films, especially the second portion of horror anthology Kwaidan, “The Woman of the Snow.”

If you’re tired of sampling horror cinema with an overreliance on classical genre tropes, gothic manors or monsters, then The White Reindeer will likely feel like a mystical breath of (frigidly cold) fresh air. It goes a long way toward salvaging 1952, in what is otherwise a notably weak year.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.