Genre cinema is known for its adherence to clichés and familiarity. That means that for most genre films, the devil is in the details and the execution determines whether a film ends up good or bad. Genre fans accept this, but that leaves an opening for directors to use these expectations against them. Jarand Herdal's Cadaver [Kadaver] is such a film. Herdal presents an original premise, keeps the setting decidedly vague and leaves the audience in the dark about the true nature of the events that are shown. The result is one of the most atmospheric horror mysteries I've seen in quite a while.
Norwegian horror got a bit of a boost in the late 00s. It didn't really last though and in recent years not much of note has made it across their borders, so it was quite surprising to see Netflix hinge their bets on Herdal's project. Herdal is a young director who still has everything to prove on the international stage, then again Netflix is known to invest in young talent. Bets that have paid off more than once already (think Hot Gimmick and Paris Is Us), Cadaver is no exception. I'm just not sure Netflix audiences are ready for these types of ambitious, more cinematic projects, which seems to be Cadaver's biggest hurdle so far.
I've read some pretty scathing critiques since I watched the film, most of them heckling the lack of clear direction and the somewhat uncertain balance of genres. It's certainly not an uncommon critique for genre films that try to do things differently, but it is a disappointing one to encounter, especially in this era of endless rehashes and unadventurous franchise material. Creativity and originality should be celebrated, but more often than not it's an extra hurdle many people are not willing to take. Cadaver plays around with several genres (mystery, horror, minor sci-fi touches) and keeps the audience unaware of the direction it's going to take, creating a tension and sense of mystery that's increasingly rare in cinema these days.
The film is set in a post-apocalyptic world where people are dying in the streets. A nuclear disaster seems to have been the cause, but the exact circumstances remain a mystery. In this barren world we follow a family who are trying to survive. Their lives are bleak and riddled with danger, so when a wealthy man invites them to his theater for a night away from all the sorrow and suffering, they decide to leap at the opportunity. The show is being held inside a huge mansion, after a healthy meal visitors are urged to explore the rooms and experience the performance in real time.
Cadaver leans heavily on its mystery elements, so moody and atmospheric visuals are a big plus. The least you can say is that Herdal delivers. A dark and subdued color scheme permeated by strong/sudden bursts of color, a great eye for lighting and a sluggish but steadfast camera turn the mansion into a haunting yet oddly compelling micro universe. Smart details, like the golden masks visitors are forced to wear, add to the eerie and secretive atmosphere. I don't think Cadaver had a particularly large budget to work with, but it sure looks expensive.
The soundtrack is equally impressive. A mix of typical horror rumbles and climaxes, alternated by classier and more ethereal sounding compositions. It integrates seamlessly with the visuals, but not without making a fair impact of its own. It's a fine balance that I haven't encountered too often, where the music does jump out and leaves a clear impression, without contrasting with any other parts of the film. Combined with the visuals it creates an extremely mysterious and moody atmosphere that crawls under your skin and doesn't let go until the very end.
The cast does a pretty solid job too. This being a horror film, not too much is expected from them, but there are no overly weak performances and some characters do end up being quite memorable. The most notable performance comes from Harr as the theater owner, though it's also the most grateful role to play, as an exaggerated effort was practically required for the part. Witt is a solid lead and Remman does very well for her age. The secondary cast isn't too memorable, then again none of their characters get much dedicated screen time.
The premise of Cadaver may be pretty disorienting, the rest of the film will feel more familiar. After sweeping the rug from under your feet, Herdal slowly guides you back into known territory. The reveal at the end is nothing you haven't seen before and along the way there are plenty of clues that should put you on the right track, though Herdal makes sure the mystery doesn't die down before the final scene. As for straight-up horror, I guess it would be best to temper your expectations. It's not very graphic, nor very scary, instead Cadaver commits fully to atmosphere and mystery.
I don't mind a simple genre film, as long as the execution is on point. That said, I prefer films that try to bend genre conventions and play around with genre clichés to mess with people's expectations. Jarand Herdal's Cadaver does exactly that, and it does so with lots of flair. Herdal delivers a very moody and stylistically impeccable mix of mystery and horror, an audiovisual experience that washed over me and stayed with me until the very end. Cadaver is exactly the kind of film you'd hope young directors would get the chance to make, kudos to Netflix for giving them the freedom to do so.