Valkoinen peura [The White Reindeer] (1952)

A few years ago, there's no way I'd have written this up here. That's not a strike against the movie - I liked this quite a bit - just an acknowledgment that it is absolutely not a Christmas movie. It is not set at Christmas, it does not reference Christmas (or any holiday, for that matter), and it is not about Christmas. However, the wintery setting and other elements (first and foremost the titular animal) resemble contemporary Christmas traditions and iconography. The movie also takes place in Lapland, a location with connections to the holidays, and folkloric winter horror has deep connections to the Christmas season, as well.

In short, while this isn't a Christmas movie, the overlap with subgenres within the holiday film canon is substantial, and I suspect this will be of interest to readers of this blog. I know I'm stepping onto a slippery slope here, but I'm going to risk it to talk about this bizarre Finnish horror film about a woman who falls in love, gets married, and is so unsatisfied with her husband's lack of attention and limited libido she consults with a wizard, who helps lead her down the path to transform into a witch.

And if that already sounds like something you'd be interested in seeing, you might consider not reading on. Or you could, honestly, because this isn't really the kind of movie that gets spoiled by knowing the plot. The White Reindeer is more about tone and subtext than story - knowing the ending isn't going to ruin the experience of seeing gorgeously shot vistas, packs of reindeer running around the cast, and evocative uses of light and shadow.

But in the interest of being semi-complete, let's delve into the story. Though before we do I want to clarify what I mean by the term, "witch." The movie is based on folklore and as such doesn't conform to the streamlined categories familiar to modern horror and fantasy fans. The witch, in this movie, is closer to what most of us have been conditioned to think of as a vampire or werewolf (were-reindeer, more accurately). And even here it's worth noting the film specifies Pirita was actually born with that condition, though she wasn't aware of it until the events of the story unfold.

We get some hints of this, particularly in the scene with her and the wizard, when she instinctively interrupts his augury and displays a connection to the supernatural that even scares him. He tells her she can have the power she seeks over men by sacrificing the first thing she meets on her way home at an altar to "The Stone God." Her hapless victim is a young white reindeer calf her husband gave her as a gift earlier.

She begins transforming into a full-grown white reindeer and in that form lures men to a narrow valley, where she reveals her true form (complete with vampiric teeth) and kills them off-camera. All her victims are reindeer herders, one of whom survives to accuse her, though everyone else mistakes him for a madman.

Eventually the village comes together to hunt down the witch with iron weapons. Pirita runs to the wizard, but he's frozen to death. She runs back to the shrine where she sacrificed the calf and preys for the power to be taken from her, but she's given no such reprieve. Eventually her darker side prevails, turning her back into a reindeer and compelling her to hunt again. In this form, she lures her husband to the valley, where he kills her with the spear before realizing her true identity. The movie ends with him kneeling in the snow in shock.

As I mentioned earlier, the real selling point here is the look and tone of the film. The winter landscape takes full advantage of the black-and-white medium, feeling at times like you're watching a living charcoal drawing. Director and cinematographer Erik Blomberg uses light in a similar way, finding an effective midpoint between reality and expressionism.

Mirjami Kuosmanen, the actress playing Pirita, deserves a great deal of credit, as well. She shifts between monster and seemingly gentlehearted woman with ease. Despite being the POV character, the movie is somewhat ambiguous as to how much she understands and when. In the hands of a less talented actress, this would come off as annoying, but Kuosmanen manages to weave that into a mystery I didn't even want answered.

Speaking of ambiguity, the movie's themes feel open to interpretation. I can imagine someone reading the story as a fairly straightforward example of misogyny - after all, the monster is quite literally a woman whose sexuality drives her to murder. But Pirita is also the main character, and I never felt like the film was approaching her unsympathetically. The story is portrayed as a tragedy more than a crime, and Pirita as the ultimate victim, perhaps even more so than those she killed. It's not that much of a stretch to read this as a cautionary tale warning of the dangers of repression.

I should mention the movie is centered around the Sámi, and I am not qualified to speak on where this film falls on the spectrum between representation and exploitation. The movie certainly seemed as though it wanted to respect their culture, but whether it succeeded or not is well beyond my expertise.

Like most older movies, this certainly isn't for everyone. But anyone interested in folkloric horror who isn't automatically bored by anything made before the 1970s (no judgment - I was pretty old before I really started to appreciate genre movies from this era) is likely to be enamored by the look and feel of this film. I certainly was.