Fantastic Fest 2012 Review: HELLFJORD Is a Delightfully Surreal Descent Into Norway's Fishy North
From the creators of Dead Snow, Cold Prey and You Said What (so pretty much every talented Norwegian currently making movies) comes this delightfully weird and wonderful television series, following a disgraced city police officer as he sees out his final days in uniform in the remote and incredibly strange fishing town of Hellfjord.
Tommy Wirkola is a name that should be familiar to many readers of Twitch, as he is the main creative force behind Norwegian Nazi zombie comedy Dead Snow. The success of that film landed him writer/director duties on the forthcoming Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, with Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton starring as ass-kicking siblings in an invigorated and action-packed re-interpretation of the Brothers Grimm's classic fairy-tale. Before that hits screens, however, Wirkola has pooled his resources and joined forces with the likes of Patrik Syverson (You Said What) and Roar Uthaug (Cold Prey) to bring the unique, fish-out-of-water comedy drama series Hellfjord to television audiences in his homeland.
As the series opens, Oslo Mounted Police Sergeant Nesbit Salmander (co-writer Zahid Ali) is faced with a daunting and heart-breaking situation. His trusty steed, Gunnar, stumbles in the Oslo city streets during the annual Independence Day parade, and breaks his leg. Fighting back the tears, Salmander realises there is only one solution and attempts to put Gunnar out of his misery. This proves more difficult than anticipated and before long Salmander's efforts to swiftly put down his horse have escalated into a grisly bloodbath in front of a now traumatised crowd of horrified onlookers.
Salmander is promptly dismissed from the police force, but due to a loophole in his civil service contract, is entitled to serve out a 3-month notice period. With no interest in seeing Salmander work another day on the streets of Oslo, his captain banishes him to Hellfjord - a tiny fishing community in the far north of Norway.
On arrival, things just go from bad to worse for Salmander. It should be pointed out that although Norwegian by birth, Nesbit is Pakistani, an unfamiliar sight to the locals of this freakishly backwards community. But, Hellfjord's simmering racism proves the least of the town's problems. The average age of its residents is 67, everybody in town smokes (which isn't great for Salmander, who is actively trying to quit), and the local economy seems almost entirely dependent upon Hellfjord's only notable employer, the large fish processing company, Hellfish.
Salmander's new deputy, Kobba (played by Dead Snow co-writer Stig Frode Henrikson) is a freakishly unkempt hillbilly type, who seems almost entirely disinterested in making Salmander's stay any less difficult. Kobba even tries to have Salmander sleep in one of the cells at the police station for the duration of his stay, but eventually he finds alternate lodgings with a lecherous old pensioner who refuses to leave the bathroom when Salmander is showering, or wear a bra under her see-through blouse. But despite all this, Salmander is determined to give it a go in Hellfjord.
Unsurprisingly it doesn't take long before the bizarre events in Hellfjord begin to pique the new sheriff's interest. The suspicious death of a worker at the fishery, the general disdain around town for its Swedish owner, Bosse Nova (Thomas Hanzon) and the bubbly enthusiasm of perky young reporter, Johanne (Cold Prey's Ingrid Bolso Berdal) all play their part in persuading Salmander to embrace his fate and peel back Hellfjord's faded, fishy facade.
Comparisons with Edgar Wright's Hot Fuzz are unavoidable, although the writers insist that the script had been developed long before they saw the film. Beyond the basic city-cop-banished-to-small-rural-town premise, the details of the two properties could not be more different, save for a delightfully off-kilter sense of humour and a love for their respective countries' small-town charms. In many ways, the tone of Hellfjord falls somewhere between Twin Peaks and The League of Gentleman, as it delights in creating weird and often repellent backwoods characters, only to nurture a deep-seated affection for them that grows as the series progresses.
Much of the first season is really just laying the foundations for what is to come in future seasons. For example, the "Hell" in the title suggests a supernatural element to the story that barely registers at all in the first seven episodes. Salmander is haunted by increasingly surreal dreams, many of which feature a priest stalking him across the fjords, but during his waking hours he is occupied almost entirely with tangible, if admittedly rather screwy, cases to investigate.
While there are moments of horror, action and some pretty gory violence, Hellfjord is primarily a comedy series, and features numerous laugh-out-loud moments in every episode. Its greatest strengths come from its cast of eccentric yet loveable oddballs, and how they interact with each other. Ali's Salmander is undeniably the straight man, lost and looking for redemption through suffering, but Henrikson's Kobba is a delightful comic creation, whether abusing his gorgeous if incomprehesnible mail order Finnish wife (Pihla Viitala), or discussing magazine subscriptions in minute detail over the phone with tele-sales reps. The town itself is also key to the success of the series, at once picturesque yet eerily unsettling, where a mysterious sea serpent lurks in the dark waters feeding on sheep heads, and where the premiere nightspot, Kjells Kitchen, is a combination family restaurant-cum-strip club.
On the basis of the first season, Hellfjord should easily secure the necessary funding to run for the three seasons its creators are hoping for. It should also secure distribution deals in a number of major international markets without too much trouble, as it balances fresh and familiar with consummate ease and its humour and characters delightfully transcend the language barrier. Some episodes certainly work better than others - I'm not sure the series needed to see Salmander go undercover behind bars so early on in its run - but these are minor quibbles for a show that kept its world premiere Fantastic Fest audience engaged, amused and always entertained during an epic three-and-a-half hour marathon screening. It seems almost criminal to drip-feed audiences such quality programming in weekly 30-minute chunks, but it's one sure-fire way to have them clamouring for more over the next couple of months - and hopefully for years to come. Bring on season 2!