❉ We Are Cult’s Nick Clement reviews new anthology film from filmmaker Mart Sander.
The anthology film Eerie Fairy Tales, from filmmaker Mart Sander (award winning television series The Whores, aka Listid), comprises of four fantasy stories for adults, all of which are evocatively produced, written, acted, and directed. Sander, who has a prolific entertainment career in Estonia and all over Europe, has assembled some strong talent both in front of and behind the camera, with a sense of dark poetry – both visual and written – always on display. This collection of thought provoking shorts, which is being showcased as a 90 minute block of content, is currently playing in theaters in Estonia and the Baltics, as well as in limited release in Finland, and is the sort of genre fare that audiences all around the world would likely spark to if given the chance to discover it. A VOD release would certainly be a smart move on the part of a wise distributor.
After a startling, dream-like opening sequence where a devilish narrator introduces the film and its intentions (this motif re-occurs all throughout), the audience is plunged directly into Actually. a low-key yet extremely suspenseful and darkly comic thriller, which subverts expectations and plays around with form and content in a refreshing manner. Set in a single location (the shadowy bar at an ominous roadside motel) during a pounding, lightning-filled rainstorm, the action pivots on a woman (Jekaterina Novosjolova) who seeks refuge from the downpour, and strikes up an interesting conversation with an eccentric yet close-to-the-vest bartender (Toomas Kolk), who shares his thoughts about the very specific date that the story is unfolding on – Friday the 13th. And what’s with all of the moaning and screaming coming from an apparently sick man who is living upstairs?
Sander, also an accomplished actor, then shows up as the hotel’s owner, and he and the bartender begin to unravel and discuss the mysterious woman’s true motives, while attempting to put all of the pieces together about what’s truly going on around them. Sander has a gift for directorially evoking a strong sense of dread and a truly mysterious atmosphere, and while Actually might not unfold in the way you’d expect, there’s no question that being surprised is part of this film’s reason for being. A trio of fine performances anchors the piece, and the cinematography and editing are clear technical standouts. And just when you think you might know where the story is headed, Sander undercuts what normal genre fare is apt to do, and instead delivers something off-beat and humorous. The final shot is terrific and loaded with implications for the viewer.
The second short in the line-up is Abeyance, which has lots of clever fun with its conspiracy-laden premise. We open on a newscaster who is excitedly reporting about a secret government installation that has been discovered and is being investigated due to claims of a UFO being kept under wraps at the facility. Two Interpol agents are given the chance to explore and meet the otherworldly visitor, with ramifications that they can’t possibly comprehend. Ambitiously crafted on what was likely a low-budget, the special effects are nifty, and again for Sander, the way he mixes humor with drama adds a layer of creativity to the proceedings. Without spoiling, one actor in particular in Abeyance clearly had a ton of fun with his droll and deadpan line-readings, milking the dark-comedy aspect while still keeping an unsettling vibe of sci-fi intrigue. It’s a quickie in terms of overall length, but it’s confidently crafted and tells a zippy story that finishes on a note of cosmic-wow.
After the modern setting of Abeyance, the viewer takes a trip back in time for The Spring of Solitude, a stylish and creepy riff on Twilight Zone material. This 42-minute effort is based on a short story that Sander had previously crafted. Set in 1840s Estonia, the plot centers on a young man from a small village who is determined to get to the bottom of – and put a stop to – an ancient curse that has enslaved a beautiful young woman. But what he can’t be prepared for is that the woman is under a mysterious spell, and it becomes clear that she might not have any desire to be set free. After his initial journey into the woods, he meets the doomed maiden, and after spending the night with her, he awakens to learn that he’s been “gone” for an entire year – his family is obviously alarmed when he shows back up in the same, clean clothes that he left in. Subsequent trips to the same forest result in longer absences and jumps in time, before a chilling finale unfolds, where the past meets the future with deadly results.
This is a fairy-tale for grown-ups, a fantasy piece that enjoys keeping the viewer off-kilter through a canny mix of gorgeous visuals and heady ideas of time, family, the metaphysical, and the surreal. Sander is a strong visualist, with his carefully selected locations adding certain production value which makes everything feel exotic and fresh. The sturdy direction maintains a great sense of pacing, and when those final sequences arrive, the narrative dips into an exciting and rather haunting realm where nothing can truly be predicted. The various performances are all good, with handsome leading man Ott Sala projecting both youthful naiveté and misplaced self-assurance; he’s got a tremendously expressive face which recalls both Adam Driver and Kip Pardue all at once. The Spring of Solitude is one of those classic “What’s Going On Here?” pieces of cinema that have long entertained audiences, and feels cut from the same cloth of old-school folk-tales that have come before it.
The concluding short is the playfully titled The Butler Did It, a macabre black-comedy-thriller which hits all the right tonal notes and amounts to something special by the conclusion. The three central performances are all extremely well-calibrated and in perfect harmony with the twisted narrative material. Without ruining any of the fun, and considering that this effort is short and sweet, the story involves a very intimate discussion involving murder and morally questionable behavior on the part of the characters, all of whom might have something to hide. Sander again demonstrates that he has a strong eye for directorial composition – this has been evident all throughout his work as a filmmaker – and that he values melding dark comedy to his twisted narrative concoctions. Ultimately, the overall success of something as distinct and tonally challenging as The Butler Did It will vary in terms of the viewer’s level of engagement in material such as this, but for this viewer, it accomplishes exactly what it set out to do.
❉’Eerie Fairy Tales: A Film By Mart Sander’ (2019) received its premiere screening 13 December 2019. Director: Mart Sander. Writer: Mart Sander. Cast includes: Lisette Pomerants, Jekaterina Novosjolova, Kadri Rämmeld.
❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott.