Erlingur Óttar Thoroddsen has been attached to movie making since he was a kid. He started out making short films and music videos while he studied literature at the University of Iceland. When he finished his BA-degree in literature he applied for MFA in movie making at Columbia University in New York and was accepted. He moved to New York in 2009 and has lived there most of the time ever since. While he was at Columbia his short films got a lot of attention at genre festivals and that encouraged him to make his first feature film Child Eater which will premier in Iceland on the 28th of October.
“Child Eater is heavily influenced by horror movies from the 70’s and 80’s, like Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween. It‘s about a baby sitter, a lost boy and a horrible bad guy who lives in the forest and eats the eyes of children,“ says Erlingur, when asked to explain the plot of Child Eater in as few words as possible. And then he continues: “It‘s my first feature film. I wrote it and directed – and was one of the producers. You have to be involved in everything in cheap independent movie making.
The film is based on a short film that was one of my final assignments at Columbia. That short won the audience award at Columbia film festival and was then shown at festivals around the world. The biggest one was SXSW and there I got contacts to people in the film industry.
It was then that I and my producer, Perri Nemiroff, started seriously thinking about making a feature film. We discussed it over a good meal and a few beers and made plans to make it happen for real. And here we are today, after much work and a lot of stress.“
“Child Eater is heavily influenced by horror movies from the 70’s and 80’s, like Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween. It‘s about a baby sitter, a lost boy and a horrible bad guy who lives in the forest and eats the eyes of children.“
You have said in interviews that you are fascinated by horror films. What is it about them that you find so fascinating?
“I‘ve been a dedicated fan of horror movies since I was a little boy so I have had lots of time to try to figure out why they fascinate me so much. There are many factors that contribute to that. Horror films have, for example, lead the way regarding innovation in film technique and directors of horror movies often have more freedom to experiment with imagery and visual effects that might not work in more ‘conventional‘ genres. When people are watching horror movies there is a kind of agreement between them and the movie maker; we accept seeing things that are outside reality, and are open to a certain amount of surrealism. That does not apply to dramatic or romantic movies, for example, and that affects the approach of the director.
We can also examine this fascination at a deeper level. One of my favorite directors, Wes Craven, often said when asked this question, that fear and terror were feelings that were natural and important to human beings. These feelings are a reaction to some danger that we need to take
seriously but as we grow more evolved and more civilized we get fewer opportunities to experience those important feelings. Most of us live in save surroundings that don’t give chances for us to unleash these feelings. It is necessary and good for us to experience these feelings in a dark cinema with lots of other people.“
Erlingur is gay and he has said that Child Eater is not a gay movie, strictly speaking, but that there are gay undercurrents. What does that mean?
“The gay undercurrents in Child Eater are definitely there, but not very obvious if you don‘t know where to look. There is a gay character in the film, though that is not emphasized in any way and one of the main characters is Lucas, a young boy who is afraid of the dark but still enjoys horror movies. In a way that character is more or less built on myself. He loves going into the woods to watch birds and what he is most afraid of is that he is sure there is someone hiding in his closet.
So there are some themes in the film that speak, directly or indirectly, to queer people; the monster in the closet is a metaphor for some kind of a secret. The monster is a child eater and therefore represents something that makes you stagnate – if it gets you– or grow up, mature and accept oneself – if you get away from it.
But, as I said, these are undercurrents. And most probably some leftover ideas from my literature studies that have rept into the script. But whether people see those ideas in the film or not it is supposed to work as an exciting horror movie!“
Does it matter whether a director is gay or whether there are queer characters in movies?
“Of course it matters that all minorities have a voice and are able to tell their stories in films, both behind the camera and in front of it. I also think it matters who directs. One hopes that the director has some kind of a unique voice that gets heard on the screen and speaks differently to different groups of audience. Queer directors have without a doubt a different view of the world than straight directors. But each director is an individual and every individual has a unique voice so the more diverse voices we get to hear the better, I think.
It‘s also very important that we get to see diverse characters in films. When people who belong to a minority group see themselves represented on-screen it can have a very good and strong influence.
I personally am always pleased when I see a gay or queer person on film, whether being queer is an issue or not. And as a gay director I am very aware of the fact that there are still very few gay or queer characters on films and TV – especially in Iceland.“
You have put forward the theory that horror films are at their core queer, what exactly do you mean by that?
“There are many aspects of the horror film that make it more queer than other genres of films. To begin with the horror art is the black sheep in arts in general and especially in films. It is avant-garde,
Many … themes in horror movies are things that queer people relate to … the bad guy is the other, hiding in shadows or closets. This fear of the unknown is often obvious in grotesque and distorted descriptions of sexual orientation and sexual identity;
different, uncomfortable and touches people differently from other genres. Many people disregard it altogether. So the horror film is queer compared to movies from other genres.
Many of the strongest themes in horror movies are things that queer people – and people from all minority groups in fact – relate to: Fear of the unknown, the bad guy or monster is the other, not one of us, hiding in shadows or closets. This fear of the unknown is often obvious in grotesque and distorted descriptions of sexual orientation and sexual identity; the vampire as a whole, the male killer in Psycho dresses up as his mother, Leatherface in Texas Chain Saw Massacre has a wig and lipstick on his mask – he is in fact in drag, the alien in Alien is both phallic in a male way and feminine in the sense that it’s mouth is literally vagina dentata. Carol Clover has even written a whole book about the flowing sexual identity connection between the male killer and female heroine in the slasher films of the 80’s.
These are just a few examples, but the horror film often tries to poke at weak and undefined sexual spots. That may be the reason why the horror movie is always most popular with younger audience, as sexuality is still a horrifying and exciting phenomen when you are a teenager. It‘s very interesting to look at how horror movies represent sexual identity and how they often start out with very stereotypical description of the sexes only to overthrow them completely as the film advances.
That‘s why I see horror movies as queer – because they play with sexual roles and turn the ideas about what is ‘normal‘ on their head.“
Child Eater will premier in Bíó Paradís in Reykjavik the 28th of October, what will you be doing next?
“Yes, Child Eater will premier in Iceland the weekend before Halloween and the plan is to have some kind of Halloween-child eating horror movie theme at Bíó Paradís in connection to the premier. Before that Child Eater had a world premiere at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, but we were chosen to be the closing film of that festival, which was a great honor for us. That screening sold out in less than an hour and they had to add another screening, which was really great! Child Eater will then go to a few other festivals this year and I will follow it – of course.“