In the 11th century a missionary goes missing somewhere in the huge forests bordering the northern parts of Sweden. Among the rescue party chosen to find him is Nanna, a young woman on her first real mission and her first return to the part of the country where she was born. But what they will find deep inside those woods is something else entirely. Something dark. Something ancient. Something evil.
Draug, directed by first-timers Karin Engman and Klas Persson, appears to have a lot going for it at first glance. Set in Sweden during the 11th Century, the film follows a young woman, Nanna (Elna Karlsson, The Great Dying) as she accompanies her mentor and foster father, Lord Hakan (Ralf Beck, The Huntress: Rune of the Dead) on a mission to find a group of missing missionaries.
Having been last seen on the borders of the ominous Odmarden Forest, Hakan and Nanna enlist the help of the foul-mouthed sheriff, Kettil (Thomas Hedengran, Para§raf 9) and his partner/slave Deja (Nina Filimoshkina, Beck), to show them around. As Kettil bullies the locals to get the information they want, Nanna continues to have increasingly disturbing visions. Having no memory of her previous life before being fostered by Hakan, could these visions lead to her understanding where she came from?
Oh, yeah and there are zombies. Swedish zombies. Well, to be fair, they’re really called draugr and, aside from being the undead, they can get in men’s minds and drive them insane. When Hakan and co are ambushed walking through the Odmarden Forest, they disperse, leaving them open to attack from the hateful and smelly draugr.
As I mentioned, it all sounds promising, and it looks gorgeous. Evidently filmed on a low budget, Draug feels like it’s bathed in the same muddle puddle as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising. You probably wouldn’t want to live out your final years in 11th century Europe, but the directors certainly do enough to make you want to appreciate the scenery for a day or two. Admittedly, the landscape might be blood-soaked occasionally, but you see the point we’re trying to make here: Sweden forests look fab.
As our leads, Karlsson and Beck add gravitas to a film which is essentially a ghost story in the woods. And while their performances are solid, it’s Hedengran who is the most memorable. Churlish, angry, spiteful and reeking of booze, Draug needs an antagonist like Kettil to spice things up. Because if he wasn’t in the narrative…. Well, let’s be honest, this would be a very dull film.
Problems arise from Draug’s glacial pacing. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with developing your characters, particularly when they live in a world that would be alien to a lot of its viewers, it does well to consider how much time you actually have to spare. Draug just barely touches the 90-minute mark and there’s a long stretch of time before we actually meet the titular draugr. It’s a similar problem that faced Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers) and his film Centurion, which created a fictitious explanation for the disappearance of the Roman Empire’s Ninth Legion in Caledonia the 2nd Century.
Lots of initial intrigue and not enough pay off. In some ways, it feels as if Draug was a pilot to a tv series that need a more complete ending tacked on in order to make it into a fully-fledged film. At least it’s not like Pavel Kostomarov’s The Outbreak, which was literally a pilot distributed to cinemas outside of its homeland of Russia and ended with a ‘Coming Soon…’ epilogue that wouldn’t look out of place in Doctor Who. No, really.
With all that said, and returning to the subject at hand, perhaps Draug should have a been a mini-series of sorts. Having spent 80 odd minutes with Nanna and her band of not-so-merry men, you can almost envision a modest version of Game of Thrones or Vikings, where the directors have time to bathe us in mythology before unleashing witches and zombies to attack us.