2016 Erlingur Óttar Thoroddsen US / Iceland 82 mins.
Icelandic-born director Erlingur Óttar Thoroddsen created something of a sensation with his 2012 horror short, Child Eater. He has now turned the short into a feature film, and it screened for the first time at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival on Sunday October 16.
The original short is pretty amazing, and you can watch it on Vimeo:
The feature film tells essentially the same story—and therein lies part of the problem. Despite the fact that it is 82 minutes long, versus the short’s 15 minutes, not much is added to the plot. It is the same story, told in a needlessly expansive and meandering fashion.
The story of Child Eater is relatively simple. Helen (in great performances by Cait Bliss in both films) is babysitting a small boy in an area shadowed by the myth of Robert Bowery, said to eat the eyes of children to ward off his own blindness. Layered over that is the myth of a black stork who lures children out of their beds at night, pecks out their eyes, and then eats them. The boy Helen is babysitting, Lucas (Colin Critchley), inexplicably walks off into the woods while she’s babysitting him, and then Helen and her boyfriend Tom (Dave Klasko) follow—and all three are stalked by Robert Bowery (Jason Martin), a monster who inhabits the border between man and myth. The feature adds another character—Ginger (Melinda Chilton)—who is, as she says, “the one who got away,” a former child victim of Bowery’s who escaped and who now seems mostly to wander crazily around the woods.
There are definitely some good things about Child Eater: as I mentioned above, Cait Bliss is great as Helen. The cinematography is eerie and the woods loom large in the film, providing a fitting setting for the only part-human Bowery. I also think that Erlingur’s visual rendering of the “Child Eater” / Robert Bowery in the feature film is vastly improved over the short. Erlingur decided to show him more obliquely, to shoot him more obscurely—and, as such, the Child Eater is visually much more menacing. There are some genuinely terrifying moments when he emerges into the frame (not least, the wonderful closet scene, which is at the heart of both films). In the short, the Child Eater often appears as merely a strange-looking man with glasses (in fact, it’s the least successful part of the short): he’s more of a genuine monster in the feature. When I watched the feature, in fact, I realized how much Erlingur’s more oblique representation of the Child Eater in the feature offeres a really interesting visual evocation of Nosferatu (F. W. Murnau, 1922).
Aside from the visual representation of the monster, though, Child Eater did not work as a feature. For a start, it had no clear narrative: most of the time, I felt like the characters were running here and there purposelessly—milling around, waiting to terrorized. There was no reason for Bowery’s emergence, for his doing what he was doing, for the other characters to be doing what they were doing. The central plot device of Lucas being lured into the woods (by the stork?) and Helen going to get him worked for the short but was not enough to sustain a feature-length narrative. The characters, moreover, were not developed at all: we learned nothing more about Helen or Bowery, for instance, in 82 minutes than we had learned in the short’s 15 minutes. In the end, I felt that this was a sadly wasted opportunity, as well as a wasting of the undeniable talents of both Cait Bliss and Erlingur Thoroddsen. I will, though, look forward to the next film he directs.