Queer Horror: Thelma gets you invested, but never pays off

Thelma is a Scandinavian horror flick from 2017 that was reasonably popular with critics around the world, receiving nominations for Best Foreign Language film at a number of festivals, and even winning a few awards, but this movie buff just doesn’t see what all the fuss is about.  As I find often to be the case in the horror genre – if the critics love it, I do not.

The opening scene of the movie is chilling.  An 8-year-old Thelma goes hunting with her father in the dead of winter.  As she is mesmerized by a deer he has in his rifle site, she doesn’t notice when he aims the rifle at the back of her head but can’t bring himself to shoot.  What could a small child have possibly done to warrant even the IDEA of murdering your own child?

Eili Harboe, a relatively accomplished Norwegian actress, plays Thelma, a devout Christian student breaking free of her overbearing parents to make it “on her own” studying biology at university.  She is quiet, no one notices her, until one day she sits next to an attractive Kaya Wilkins (Anja) in the library and has a seizure.  The seizure is preceded by birds crashing into the library windows, a phenomenon which is never addressed or explained.  At the hospital, Thelma tells the doctor she has no knowledge of a history of epilepsy and asks them not to bother her parents about the incident.  This detail combined with her parents calling her frequently, asking minutia like what she is eating, and having her class schedule memorized makes it seem like she is hiding something…or they are.

Thelma has Anja’s attention now, and when Anja asks about her welfare, Thelma basically swoons.  Anja incorporates Thelma into her group of friends, taking her out drinking (Thelma’s first ever drink) and dancing, inviting her to parties.  One night as Thelma lies in bed, she is having provocative thoughts about Anja who suddenly appears outside her building and doesn’t know exactly why or how she got there, but she sleeps over anyway.  As the two become increasingly romantically involved, Thelma’s seizures become more frequent, and come with supernatural abilities.

Thelma director and co-stars at the NY film festival

NEW YORK, NY – OCTOBER 06: Kaya Wilkins,writer/director Joachim Trier and Eili Harboe attend the 55th New York Film Festival – “Thelma” at Alice Tully Hall on October 6, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

Thelma’s sexual awakening is shameful given her strict Christian upbringing

Thelma feels ashamed of her increasing lust for Anja, she tries to fight the desire she feels, but as she does, so too is she less in control of what are diagnosed as psychogenic seizures.  Growing up repressed as she was, with a father who almost blew her head off as a child, and a mother in a wheelchair, one can only assume that Thelma was deprived of affection all her life.  She yearns for a friend, and then she yearns for more from that friend, but she is sure her parents wouldn’t accept her sexual identity, and so she hides everything from them…until Anja goes missing.

One of the most intriguing parts of the movie is Thelma going in search of the truth about her heritage and her past, as she finds out the grandmother she thought was dead is actually institutionalized with the same diagnosis.  It seems that her grandmother, who is unresponsive due to heavy medication, also experienced a mysterious disappearance of a loved one – and blames herself.  After Anja goes missing, Thelma returns to her parents and her childhood home, filled with shame.  Her father’s religious “help” only exacerbates that shame, and having experienced a modicum of independence, the repression in the household becomes too much for Thelma to endure, and she lashes out.

While Thelma is definitely more psychological thriller than horror movie, it felt like it was building towards a climax that never came.  There is clunky symbolism – a snake representing sexual desire as sin, for example – and the movie is shot from from the protagonist’s point of view a lot of the time, so the viewer is as confused as Thelma about whether what she’s experiencing is real or hallucination.  One thing that I do admire about the movie, and part of the reason I don’t think Thelma should be in the horror category, is that her power is never characterized as evil.  Her power has manifested horrific events, but it appears that what she does is unconscious.  The actors, particularly Henrik Rafaelsen as Trond, Thelma’s father, are excellent and the cinematography is beautiful.  The quick transitions between close-ups and wide shots are jarring for the viewer.  Had this film not been marketed as a horror movie, and promoted as the coming-of-age tale with supernatural elements that it is, I probably wouldn’t have been so disappointed when the end came with no payoff – it’s basically Carrie lite.

However I may feel about the film, good films do often raise questions that leave you thinking even after the final credits have rolled.  In this case, I pose the questions to you, my readers: What would you do if you could make your desires come true?

Thelma can currently be seen on Hulu.

Do you agree with critics’ horror movie reviews?  Let me know in the comments!