Terror is in the offing from the first scene of Swedish writer-director Johannes Nyholm’s Koko-di Koko-da. A demonic trio — impeccably dressed old man Mog (Peter Belli), Andre the Giant-resembling behemoth Sampo (Morad Khatchadorian) and angular J-Horror reject Cherry (Brandy Litmanen) — wind their way through the woods, dead and live dog in tow. Mog approaches the camera, singing the earworm of a title song and grinning devilishly. His entourage provides silent, glaring backup. It’s a true nightmare in motion: The immediate desire is to recoil, but it’s impossible to turn away. That about sums up the experience of watching a movie that plays like the bastard offspring of Groundhog Day and The Babadook.
After the unearthly prelude, the film settles on terra firma for a bit, though the mood is still unsettlingly oddball. Dad Tobias (Leif Edlund Johansson), mom Elin (Ylva Gallon) and daughter Maja (Katarina Jacobson) are on vacation. Each of them is wearing some hastily drawn rabbit makeup that’s all the weirder for having no specified origin. (The bunny theme comes back later with an emotionally shattering vengeance.) The family certainly makes for a peculiar sight at the restaurant where they stop for lunch, though the patrons seem distracted by another pair of literal clowns (Stine Bruun and Martin Knudsen) who are putting on a bizarre floorshow. Anything that’s supposed to be fun is instead suffused with dread.
You know … not for kids.
Elin unfortunately eats some bad shellfish and has a near-fatal allergic reaction. She survives, but, in a brilliantly filmed, slow-dawning reveal, the parents discover that Maja has died, apparently from her own delayed reaction to the poisonous seafood. It also happens to be the young girl’s birthday! Flash-forward three years to a distant and damaged Tobias and Elin, who head into the woods for what’s supposed to be a relationship-rejuvenating camping trip. Instead, they meet Mog, Sampo and Cherry, who trap them in a kind of horror- and sorrow-laden time loop.
It becomes fairly obvious fairly quickly that these hellish emissaries are Tobias and Elin’s buried grief made flesh. To escape, they have to confront their heartache head-on. Many a scare film has used monsters as mournful metaphors, and if Nyholm and his performers can’t quite transcend the limitations of this conceit, that rarely mitigates the spine-chilling qualities of the imagery by co-cinematographers Johan Lundborg and Tobias Hoiem-Flyckt and the sound design by Gustaf Berger and Jacques Pedersen.
Most of Koko-di Koko-da takes place in the same remote forest glade, where a buzzing fly or an unexplained change of weather (from fog to snow) is enough to petrify. The frights take many forms, some of them comical, as in the repeated image of Tobias in his underwear, cowering in emasculated panic. A moment in which Mog, Sampo and Cherry’s vicious attack dog laps up a pool of Elin’s urine has a much nastier feel, as if Bunuel or Pasolini had sunk to the leering depths of I Spit on Your Grave.
Nyholm uses handheld long takes as a way of emphasizing Tobias and Elin’s all-consuming anguish, a tactic most effective toward the end of the film when Elin finds herself all alone and tries desperately to escape the verdant prison. Koko-di Koko-da’s best scenes, however, involve two shadow puppet shows, complete with David Lynchian red curtain, that play out the parents’ heartbreaking story in microcosm. The marionette melodramas cut deep, much like the often obvious yet still quite affecting film they inhabit.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Drama)
Production company: Johannes Nyholm Produktion and Beofilm
Director-screenwriter: Johannes Nyholm
Cast: Ylva Gallon, Leif Edlund Johansson, Peter Belli, Katarina Jacobson, Morad Khatchadorian, Brandy Litmanen, Stine Bruun, Martin Knudsen
Producer: Johannes Nyholm
Co-producer: Maria Moller Christoffersen
Executive producer: Peter Hyldahl
Cinematographers: Johan Lundborg, Tobias Hoiem-Flyckt
Editor: Johannes Nyholm
Production designer: Pia Aleborg
Costume: Gabriella Lundberg
Supervising sound editor: Gustaf Berger
Sound designers: Gustaf Berger, Jacques Pedersen
Composers: Simon Ohlsson, Olof Cornéer
Sales agent: Stray Dogs