[Review] M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Old’ Captures the Absurdities of Time

Martians, atomic monsters, and thinly veiled Cold War allegories were common themes of the 1950s golden age of science fiction cinema. Although with its firm center in the United States, the steady production of sci-fi epics enthused audiences worldwide. But what if the scenery was not a barren planet or an invaded city, but the cool environs above the Arctic Circle? What if the filmmakers were not Hollywood veterans but two small-time producers in Sweden? This is the origin story of Terror in the Midnight Sun, likely one of the first European sci-fi movies ever to be produced and most definitely the first one from Sweden. This northern monster story has lived most of its life on physical media in Swedish cult film circles but is now available for streaming to an international audience. It all began around 70 years ago.

In 1947, the Swedish dancer and actor Gustaf Unger emigrated to the United States. With his brother – they worked under the stage moniker “the Unger Twins” – he got involved in Hollywood and the ins and outs of filmmaking. In the early days of the Space Age, the public fascination for space travel and futuristic technology kept growing, spilling over onto the silver screen in the form of numerous science fiction adventures. The following years saw movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, The War of the Worlds, Forbidden Planet, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with intriguing conceptual plots and, at the time, mind-blowing special effects. Many sci-fi movies in this era had considerable overlap with horror in general and monster movies in particular, something that seemed to have resonated with Unger as he made way in film production.

During the same time, in the mid-’50s, the aspiring producer Bertil Jernberg got into film production in Sweden. Jernberg had a military background, where he had worked at the film department of the Armed Forces. The department filled the purpose of a film school, teaching all the practicalities of making films, including prolonged visits to Cinecittá in Rome and other prestigious places. After working on several feature films at other companies, Jernberg was looking to start his own and found some like-minded partners, which led to the founding of Fortuna Film. Among the founders was Gustaf Unger, back in Sweden for the time being, with a grand plan for making a science fiction movie unlike anything seen in the country before.

Only two films that can conceivably be called horror had seen the light of day in Sweden at that time. By all accounts, the number of sci-fi films was even lower, zero to be precise. Whether a feat of bravery or a fool’s errand, Jernberg and Unger got to work. The idea was to ride on the wave of popular sci-fi in the United States, combined with horror that was still in high demand after a decade of Universal Classic Monsters and successful spinoffs, then give it an unmistakably Scandinavian setting. In the words of the working title of the screenplay Jernberg and Unger eventually bought based on a synopsis they liked, it was a “Horror Drama in the Midnight Sun,” or as it became known: Terror in the Midnight Sun.

The script for Terror in the Midnight Sun was penned by Arthur C. Pearce, having only the somewhat derivative indie sci-fi The Cosmic Man among his credits. Pearce would specialize in low-budget science fiction during the 1960s, with little fame, and many of the formulaic ingredients were found already in Terror in the Midnight Sun. The movie he wrote initially emphasized the idea of friendly aliens landing on Earth only to discover the humans were intensely hostile due to an inherent suspicion towards anything foreign or out of the ordinary. The team reworked this into what would become the present plot, which goes something like this…

A UFO, looking not unlike a disco ball, lands in the snowy mountains of the northern part of Sweden that at the time was referred to as the titular “Lappland.” (Part of the larger territory of Sápmi, which is the name that the indigenous Sámi people use themselves.) This strange object makes news headlines and draws interest from Erik and Henrik, two geologists in the capital city of Stockholm, who swiftly travel up north. They bring Dr. Wilson, a fellow visiting scientist from the United States, whose daughter Diane, an Olympic figure skating champion, happens to be at the destination already. Erik and Diane take an interest in each other while the whole group delves into the landscape to investigate. Based on an earlier report, they uncover a scene of carnage: a herd of dead reindeer, apparently torn apart by some monstrous beast, judging by the gigantic footsteps in the snow next to the poor animals. The team continues towards the landing site of the spacecraft, buried deep beneath an Arctic peak. They are electronically monitored by the mysterious passengers within the vessel, a small party of quiet humanoid aliens. Not to give away too much, Terror in the Midnight Sun continues along these lines, with a lot of beautiful skiing scenes, crashed planes, avalanches, a bit of romance, and of course, one giant hairy monster.

The planning and pre-production of Terror in the Midnight Sun took only a few months, much of it dealing with the logistic challenges of shooting much of the movie in such a remote location. Outdoors scenes were to be shot with natural light and a few reflectors. For daytime scenes, the result is spectacular, and plenty of the runtime is spent on winter vistas and downhill skiing. Night scenes, however, were much more difficult due to the same midnight sun that was marketed in the film’s title – the sun just does not set at all in April–May when these took place. A cast of both American and Swedish actors was hired, some of which were rather fluent in English, while in a few notable cases, the dialog had to be re-recorded because the level of language comprehension was just too low. Several of the actors were quite well known. Robert Burton, who played Dr. Wilson, had done many popular television roles in shows such as Perry Mason, The Lone Ranger, and Gunsmoke. The leads, Sten Gester, Bengt Blomberg, and Åke Grönberg, had all appeared in large film and theater productions in Sweden, including several by the notorious Ingmar Bergman. Barbara Wilson, playing the ice princess Diane, came from several years of television and movies but would sadly only work for a few more years after this stint.

The choice of director fell on Virgil W. Vogel, whom Gustaf Unger had met in the United States. Vogel was established as a skilled film editor, working for several years at Universal Pictures and editing films by directors such as Douglas Sirk, King Vidor, and maybe most significant, Orson Welles. Welles’ Touch of Evil was the last project Vogel worked on as an editor before turning to direct his debut, the sci-fi horror adventure The Mole People about a hidden civilization of mutant Sumerians discovered by archeologists in former Mesopotamia. Virgil had taken an interest in genre films and must have seen Terror in the Midnight Sun as an excellent step in that direction. He, too, packed his bags and joined the cast and crew in the exotic, cold north.

All the Americans found the experience exciting, though without much spare time to see anything of Sweden outside film sets and hotel rooms. The northern schedule was tight, more for the practical requirements than a lack of shooting days. A colossal studio set with the landed UFO was built in Stockholm, and a model version for in-flight sequences, an altogether expensive affair. The production went far over its $190,000 budget due to these studio projects and would have gone even further if Jernberg had gotten another wish granted – to shoot the entire movie in color. In terms of special effects, significant effort went into the monster’s appearance. The shaggy monster was played by the journalist Lars Åhrén, another partner in Fortuna Film and a suitably tall man, who spent several hours per day in preparation by the costume and makeup department. Trick perspective shots and model environments with house replicas built at a reduced scale augmented Åhrén’s already towering figure towards the desired monster height of six meters. After forty long days, all outdoors and studio scenes were finally committed to celluloid. Terror in the Midnight Sun entered post-production and would soon be ready for the market.

At its release, film critics in Sweden roasted Terror in the Midnight Sun, calling it “unnecessary” and “featureless.” At least one writer commented that some filmmakers seem to almost compulsively make films about space adventures and aliens, however thin the story. As is still the case, horror and sci-fi are often misunderstood by critics without a background specifically within genre films, which seems to have been the case this time too. In more than 100 years, Sweden has only produced 30 horror movies with a theatrical release, and its sci-fi output numbers in the single digits. It should not be too surprising that the country was not fertile soil for growing a favorable reputation for Terror in the Midnight Sun.

And so, the co-producer Gustaf Unger traveled across the Atlantic to sell the film, an enterprise that would sow disagreement within Fortuna Film. Unger kept sending telegrams back home to Jernberg, bragging about important meetings with distributors, eventually claiming Paramount had made an offer. In reality, Unger had sold the film to the first available buyer, Associated Distributors Productions (ADP), and kept all the money himself. Jerry Warren at ADP decided to make an alternative version of the film in the United States. For the theatrical release, the original 73 minutes was reduced to 55 minutes, with entirely new scenes including Barbara Wilson and also John Carradine as a narrator. Much material was cut out as well, notably one of the most – even by horror standards – unjustified nude shower scenes imaginable. Under the new title Invasion of the Animal People, this version of the film premiered in the US in 1962. According to Jernberg, Terror in the Midnight Sun was sold in 15–20 other countries meanwhile, but despite this, could not bear its costs. Fortuna Film closed shop soon after that and became a mere two-film chapter in Swedish film history.

Terror in the Midnight Sun has since become one of the most famous cult classics in Sweden, often with the implicit assumption that it’s a terrible movie. Genre geeks, however, tend to cherish the movie. It is considered a definitive B movie, but interesting enough has few of the hallmark features associated with that label. The cinematography is well-crafted and displays many beautiful winter wonderland shots to a score based on traditional Swedish melodies, and the actors are not that bad at all. All this at a budget that was several times bigger than the average Swedish production. Most of the B movie quality stems from the screenplay and story that is decidedly hard to follow at times, even though Jernberg quite simply explains it in the Blu-ray commentary track. But plot holes could probably just be considered a rule rather than an exception in the world of 1950s science fiction cinema.

All in all, Terror in the Midnight Sun is a surprisingly pleasant experience. It is not a film among dozens like it. In fact, it is unique as the very first in the ultra-rare category that is Swedish science fiction. The film has continuously been kept alive by the heroes at Klubb Super 8 that have distributed it throughout the years, first on VHS, then DVD, and then with support from the Swedish Film Institute in a 2019 Blu-ray edition restored from the original 35 mm. The latest stop is Cultpix, a new cult movie streaming service from the Klubb Super 8 team that soft-launched in April and has now opened its doors to the general public. Terror in the Midnight Sun is in the initial offering of 400 titles ranging from Scandinavian erotica and kung-fu to kaiju and slashers. A most suitable home for such an odd bird and fantastic news for a movie that deserves a much larger audience outside Sweden, an audience that is hopefully much kinder and appreciative than the critics in 1959. Underneath the convoluted plot and the broken English hides a worthwhile addition to the world of old-school sci-fi horror classics.

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