Tommy Wiklund is driving through the winter night with deer sniffing at the edges of the road in Knivsta, a scattered satellite town near Uppsala in eastern Sweden.
The forests of the Uppland plains press up against the car.
Once a year, Wiklund, his childhood buddy Sonny Laguna, and the third musketeer David Liljeblad, rent a cabin deep in the woods and turn off their mobile phones.
Then they watch 72 hours of horror movies in a row.
”I mean, how many ’friends go on holiday in the woods’ horror movies have you seen? We know it’s a standard template,” says Laguna when explaining the premise of their new film Vittra (Wither).
The film has incorrectly been labelled “Sweden’s first zombie film”. That’s not to say they don’t like zombies.
They both have high praise for US television series The Walking Dead, although Wiklund and Laguna note that its enduring strength is the psychological interplay of the survivors rather than trying to explain the pandemic.
Their film looks at a nearly-forgotten Nordic creature – the vittra that sleeps under ground. The reason it’s not a zombie film, they explain as Wiklund pulls up at a local pizzeria, is that their interpretation of the mythical being focuses on a gradual takeover of a person’s soul, rather than mindless flesh-chomping cadavres.
“If you wandered into the vittra’s territory you could end up in trouble,” says Wiklund, with his wide-eyed gaze and a bombastic voice that commands an entire corner of the restaurant.
The pair notes that some older Swedish maps still have markings for “Wither Trails” (vitterstråk), ambling paths through the wilderness, where old folklore warned that one should not build a home.
“They don’t show up on Google Maps, of course,” Wiklund says.
“It was probably just a good way to control the boundaries of private land,” interjects Laguna, as he pours his colleague a glass of Coca-Cola.
“I’ve managed to cut down to two litres a week, but during production I drank two litres a day,” he says about the exhausting 50-day filming period, which was entirely self-financed. By day, Laguna works at Stockholm Arlanda Airport, while Wiklund is a healthcare clerk.
They have already produced the English-language film Madness, which was released in the US in 2010 and then in France and Germany. Their movie Blood Runs Cold premiered at Frightfest in 2011, with releases in the UK, US and Germany.
“Madness was a very over the top Chainsaw Massacre kind of film,” Wiklund says.
“With Vittra we said, let’s do it in Swedish. Some people say language is no longer a barrier to selling films internationally, but that’s not true.”
Despite finding it harder to sell the Swedish-language Vittra, the filmmakers have tied up with US distributors Artsploitation and secured DVD distribution in Germany, where the film will also be shown on television.
They have also secured limited release of Vittra in Swedish cinemas in August.
Their success abroad reflects in part that sci-fi, fantasy, and horror are almost completely overlooked genres in Sweden, with vampire teen angst drama Let The Right One In a notable exception in recent years.
Instead, Norwegian filmmakers lead the Scandinavian field with films such as Troll Hunter, say Laguna and Wiklund, before peppering the conversation with a long list of other titles.
Yet one Swedish paranormal horror classic, The Visitors (Besökarna), is a favourite of Wiklund’s.
The scene in which an invisible poltergeist ties up a ghostbuster played by Johannes Brost and drowns him in a duck pond haunted many a Swedish child’s dreams in 1988.
“‘Damn, Brost! Could we get him?’ we asked. We were so lucky, timing-wise, to get him, because he had a gap between Avalon and the Olof Palme mini series A Pilgrim’s Death,” says Wiklund.
“I was a bit thick at first because I didn’t realize quite how good of an actor he is,” says Laguna, who is less of a fan of The Visitors, but is delighted to have Brost on board.
They have aimed to respect the serious feel of old school classics rather than transgress into an ironic or self-depracatory style. The duo has almost no love for horror films that make fun of the genre.
“I hate Cabin in the Woods. Scream, however, might be silly but it’s clever as it has a valid point about a psychopath being able to copy horror movie plots in real life,” Laguna says.
Another pet peeve is Hollywood producers who have multimillion dollar budgets, but either waste it on being too parodic or not focusing enough on the special effects. Laguna looks positively disgusted when he works his way through a list of films that use special affects poorly.
In contrast to Hollywood-scale production, their company, Stockholm Syndrome Film, spent 300,000 kronor ($47,000) on Vittra.
“Our challenge is to make a low budget film not look low budget. We don’t want quality to detract from the film itself,” Wiklund says.
“You can’t have people thinking ‘this looks homemade’ as soon as they start watching,” interrupts Laguna softly.
Everything they have learned about making horror films is self-taught after high school. They credit Evil Dead producer Sam Raimi for being “a genius already at the age of 19” and say they themselves wouldn’t say no if Hollywood came knocking on their door, but they wouldn’t want to sell their souls – at least not full time.
“Being an independent filmmaker means you don’t have another person standing behind you and tapping you on your shoulder as you film,” Wiklund says.
And they do everything themselves, including audio effects, which meant dragging a literal fruit bazaar into a recording studio and going haywire.
“Oranges, melons, you name it. There’s a lot of rain in the film and we almost ruined the equipment trying to replicate the sound of raindrops on a metal windowsill,” Wiklund says.
“We were exhausted and left it all and when we got back it was disgusting,” they say about the fruit massacre that ensued.
“It wasn’t just moldy, it was crawling.”