At first glance, Robert Eggers’ latest movie doesn’t appear to be the director’s typical period piece horror fare.
Eggers’ The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019) established the filmmaker’s reputation for making strong genre films. Both titles bend and play with categories lumped under the horror umbrella — The Lighthouse in survivalism and psychological thriller, The Witch in religious and patriarchal extremism — but none take the risk of Eggers’ third indie arthouse masterpiece, The Northman (2022).
Now streaming on Amazon Prime, The Northman is, at its harsh and cold Nordic surface, a gnarly tale of revenge, with a brawny berserker (Alexander Skarsgård) taking us through grisly Viking adventures of the body and mind to accomplish one last gory mission before reaching the pearly Gates of Valhalla. To seek justice for his murdered father (Ethan Hawke) and entrapped mother (Nicole Kidman), he must first survive the fires of Hel.
But look deeper at its motifs and you’ll find that The Northman is a perfect addition to your spooky season watchlist. Chock-full of Norse magic and sinister hallucinations, tense pacing and engrossing surrealist cinematography, and scored with an eerie soundtrack by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough, The Northman is just as worthy of the horror label as Eggers’ earlier films.
At its heart, The Northman is a fresh re-imagination of a well-known tale, imbued with folklore that the average American viewer may not be familiar with, and enough optic and narrative complexity to keep you guessing. It’s based primarily on the 12th-century legend of Amleth, as recorded by Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, which also inspired Hamlet.
Eggers has also confirmed that Conan the Barbarian served as source material.
“There’s a lot of Conan referencing, I have to admit. Many tips of the hat. I’ve been told by my PR team to keep it light, but this is in some respects me trying to do Conan the Barbarian by way of Andrei Rublev.”
Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak, later Skarsgård) has his privileged world turned upside-down when his father, King Aurvandill (Hawke) of the fictional island of Hrafnsey, is beheaded by his bastard brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Fjölnir stages a coup, claiming Queen Gudrún (Kidman) as his own, and orders his legion to hunt down the young prince.
Amleth escapes, but remains haunted by the image of his father’s murder and vows to avenge him and rescue his mother. Years later, Amleth is incognito as a furious berserker, but is recognized by a prophetess. She tells him:
“Now remember for whom you shed your last teardrop. Remember the oath to right the wrong. Remember the Raven King. Remember. Remember, it contains the salty ocean you must sail upon to the edge of the world...”
On his journey to reclaim his birthright by any means necessary (i.e. juggernaut savagery and volcanic sword fights), Amleth must reckon with the truth behind his trauma and move forward to obtain justice. His guides include witches (Willem Dafoe) and sorceresses (Anya Taylor-Joy), who help Amleth seal his chilling fate.
While The Northman received rave reviews from critics and a mostly positive reception from audiences, it only grossed $69.6 million worldwide. In short, the film — while praised for its uninhibited viciousness and visual intricacy — was a theatrical flop. But Eggers isn’t disappointed in it, noting to The Daily Beast that The Northman was a home success.
“I think it met the expectations of a bad marketplace. Am I disappointed that, three to four weeks in, we’re on VOD because that’s the way things are done in the post-COVID world? Yeah. But it’s doing great on VOD, so there you go. When I see, on social media, people taking a photo of themselves watching The Northman on their laptop and being excited about it, it draws a tear to my eye. But it is what it is.”
Focus Features verified that The Northman had become profitable, and perhaps it would have done better in theaters had Focus just held out a little longer and released the Viking feature during October rather than April. Bursting with macabre and malevolence, and set against a dreary expanse, The Northman gets just spooky enough to appease horror junkies and fraidy cats alike, while staying true to its Nordic action-adventure label. Luckily, it can be streamed right on time for Halloween.
The Northman is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.