THELMA Is Humanism and Horror Blended Into an Affecting Concoction

For those who have been looking for horror grounded by strong characters and blended with multiple genres, look no further than THELMA.

What is wrong with Thelma?

That is the question that drives this Norwegian film, which is equal parts drama, romance, and horror. At the crux of the question is the supposition that there is an answer. And clearly, something is going on with Thelma. She is prone to seizures, and she can make people appear and disappear.

Oh, and perhaps most important of all, she has a deep attraction to her classmate Anja, despite being raised in a Christian household that does not tolerate such romantics.

The horror of THELMA is not a ghost, nor a ghoul, nor a knife-wielding killer. By basic metrics, THELMA is not a horror film at all. Yet, that’s the brilliance of the film, in my view — the horror is not something for the viewer to experience, but Thelma.

She has uncontrollable seizures, which paralyze her and leave her to the mercy of her surroundings. Sometimes she’s lucky, like the time when she has one in front of Anja, who helps her get back to her room. Other times, she’s not so lucky, like in one of the film’s most memorable sequences where she is in a pool, sinking into what appears to be the great unknown.

The other horror she must endure is the seeming randomness of her power. Thoughts lead to action for Thelma. People disappear when she wants them to (or even when she doesn’t). It’s an incredible burden for her to bear, and it’s one that has long driven a wedge between Thelma and her parents.

It’s this dichotomy that makes Thelma’s situation seem so hopeless. Falling in love with Anja will pull her and her parents further apart, as does the natural change from living at home to living at a college where people party, drink, and smoke. On top of that, her seizures seem to be tied to her attraction to Anja. As such, even the slightest thought or touch is enough to send Thelma into debilitating stasis.

This is an impressively thoughtful way to frame Thelma’s situation. While other directors may have chosen to root the horror of the film in Thelma’s instability, Joachim Trier chooses instead to focus on Thelma’s desire for stability. It’s a subtle, but important difference. The former makes Thelma an object acting on the world; the latter imbues her with the complexities of humanity.

At its core, humanity seems to be the key component that is missing in a lot of horror films. While that is not true of many — folks need only to look at the incredible array of films released over the past decade to see that, including THE INVISIBLE MAN, which was released this year — it is noticeable in many projects. I think it’s something all creators understand at a core level, that character is just as important, if not more important than plot. However, something seems to get lost when the final product hits the big screen. I’m thinking of films like THE NUN, or the myriad of slashers that get released in theaters and VOD annually. These are films where the viewer’s relation to the protagonist is crucial. And yet, these are the films that seem to have the least amount of characterization — or worse, the most shallow form of it.

I guess what made THELMA stand out to me so much is that every moment, from the title itself to the mirrored opening and closing frames, is focused on this woman: on how she feels, what she wants, what she’s experiencing, and what conflicts she is trying to surmount. It’s a horror film in some places, a poignant romance in others, and a character study in particular scenes. No matter where Trier goes though, he doesn’t lose sight of this mysterious girl and what makes her special.

THELMA is streaming on Hulu US.

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Keith LaFountaine

Writer and filmmaker from Vermont. Sometimes, I dabble with politics.