There’s something about unsolved murders, the grislier the better, that captures the human imagination and takes root there, defiantly remaining a part of the zeitgeist no matter how many decades tick on. A century later, we’re still talking about Jack the Ripper and his legacy has been warped, glamorized, deconstructed, and reconstructed into something of a mythic legend. In truth, most murders are petty, spiteful acts by family and lovers or disturbing outbursts of violence by the mentally ill. Nothing glamorous, nothing alluring, and yet the mystique of the unsolved murder endures. Summer of Sam. The Zodiac Killer. The Black Dhalia. Jon Benet. The unspeakable and the unknowable converge into an irresistible curiosity.
In Finland, the Lake Bodom murders have been prying at inquiring minds since 1960, when three teenagers were found bludgeoned and stabbed to death inside their lakeside tent. A fourth camper survived his wounds but was left with no memory of the incident. In the decades since, the Bodom murders have achieved that mythic unsolved status in their home country, remaining a topic of conversation in the media (and the courts, which tried a new suspect — the sole survivor — as recently as 2004). With the aptly titled Lake Bodom (released in Europe last year under the title Bodom and available today exclusively on Shudder), director Taneli Mustonen, who also co-wrote the script with Aleksi Hyvärinen, puts his own spin on the notorious crime with a twisted meta-slasher that reflects back on the true crimes while remaining firmly in the realm of fiction.
The film stars Nelly Hirst-Gee as Ida, a young woman cast in the mold of a classic final girl. Timid and kind with a well-spoken edge, Ida sets out for a temporary escape from her religiously oppressive family after some coaxing from her best friend Nora (Mimosa Willamo). It’s also a temporary escape from the gaze of her classmates after she passed out at a party and woke up to find nude pictures circulating the school. With the promise of a fresh start, Ida and Nora head off to the infamous lakeside campground alongside two guys from their school; Atte (Santeri Helinheimo Mäntylä), who’s obsessed with solving the Lake Bodom murders and Elias (Mikael Gabriel), who’s obsessed with slightly more predictable teenage boy things.
Mustonen spends the first half of his film stringing out the tension with surprising efficacy. In the post-Scream horror landscape, the slasher film has been deconstructed and reimagined so many times, we’ve become all but inured to the tricks of the trade. But Mustonen knows how to slow-build the scares, drawing out the moments before the bloodshed for all their worth. He’s also shot an incredible looking film with his cinematographer Daniel Lindholm, who leans into the inky darkness of a creepy campground night without ever letting the film look dreary or dull. Aside from rare exceptions indie exception like You’re Next slashers have largely died out in Hollywood in over the last few decades, thankfully we have filmmakers around the world like Mustonen who still know how to make the old clockwork tick.
At a certain point, Lake Bodom pulls the rug out and turns into something more interesting, if less articulate, than a simple slasher film. The concept and the imagery aren’t quite groundbreaking, and will almost certainly evoke another subversive horror hit for fans of the genre, but Mustonen keeps things interesting with a series of twists, maintaining an unpredictable wave of events all the way to the final shot. Whether that’s for better or for worse may be up for debate. It’s certainly a thrill ride, but at a trim 85 minutes, Lake Bodom doesn’t quite have the room to make it around all those twists and turns without taking some damage. Overall, the structural integrity holds and the film serves up a clever reexamination of slasher tropes, but there’s a significant bit of clunky exposition and at a certain point, you start to feel you’ve barely registered the last plot turn before the next one comes barreling down on you.
Lake Bodom also struggles a bit with tone, veering from playful and thrilling to grisly and stomach-turning in the blink of an eye. It might not be so jarring if it weren’t for the reminder of the true, genuinely horrifying murders that inspired the film, but from the title, the characters, and ultimately the final act are all situated to keep the true crime on our minds. It puts a disturbing exclamation point on things, but it also veers into somewhat sticky exploitation territory and it’s a bit hard to know how to feel at the end of things.
The film’s energetic filmmaking and lasting effect can’t be denied though. While Lake Bodom may run into a few snags along the way, Mustonen has crafted a rare breed these days: a compelling, propulsive slasher film. He’s running familiar plays, both from the classics of the genre and from the self-reflective meta disruptors that followed, but he’s executing them so well, it’s hard to take issue with it. And in between the familiar moments, Lake Bodom has some genuinely thrilling flourishes, from a subtle, quiet beat where single light in the darkness tells you there’s something to fear, to an adrenaline-fuelled high-speed car sequence that may be the film’s most original and thrilling sequence. Lake Bodom toys with its audience giddily and ferociously, like a tilt-a-wheel of genre conventions, and Mustonen films it all through a confident, boldly cinematic lens, building off the bones of a true crime fascination to shape a creative spin classic slasher yarn.