Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” has been on a lot of people’s minds of late. Lucky, affluent people gathered for a masked ball, sickening and dying? Yes, it sounds like all manner of conservative “Super Spreader” events.
The Norwegian writer-director Jarand Herdal takes that basic premise and puts it in a post-apocalyptic setting with “Cadaver (Kadaver),” a thriller about guests invited to the last hotel for dinner and a show.
As even a passing knowledge of Poe, the briefest acquaintance with horror or the damned obvious title gives away where this is going, the pleasure in this thriller comes from tone, tricks, committed actors and execution. The writer-director, making his feature film debut, ensures that those come off with style.
Some sort of nuclear event — the old newspapers blowing down the ruined streets in perpetual gloom or rain aren’t clear — has brought on End Times. Accident during heightened tensions, or attack, it doesn’t matter. Bodies are everywhere as people die of starvation some months after the disaster.
Actress Leonara (Gitte Witt) and husband Jacob (Thomas Gullestad) navigate this world of doom, where every closed door opens onto a fresh horror — a suicide, a desiccated corpse — with their ten year-old daughter Alice (Tuva Olivia Remman).
The adults take turns bucking each other up (in Norwegian, with English subtitles).
“We have nothing left.” “We have to hang in there. We have each other. We have Alice.”
In an every person for himself world, peril is everywhere, especially in the dark. Despair rules the daylight.
And then, a break, a lifeline. A barker advertises “dinner and a show” at The Hotel. Dress up, regain your humanity, if just for a night. How do they have food? How could there still be a staff? Don’t look a gift theatrical horse in the mouth.
But…your daughter. “This show isn’t for children.” Please, she’s an actress’s daughter. Look at the horror around you. What could shock or scar her now?
Mathias (Thorbjørn Harr) is the maître d’ and MC for the evening and their “first time guests.”
“Forget the world outside,” he urges. Eat, drink, enjoy, escape.
He presides over a vast wait staff and busy kitchen. And the show? You’re a part of it, everyone and everything you see will be “theater.”
It’ll be like “Tony & Tina’s Wedding,” with bickering and sex and oh, a little murderous violence.
See what I mean about “We know where this is going?”
Of course, Alice-the-wandering-child is separated from the parents. They’re hurled into a frantic search, “mid show,” for their child, through scores of rooms, kitchens, convincing themselves “It’s not real” right up to the point they know it is.
“Cadaver” relies too much on tropes and coincidences. But it succeeds or fails on the back of the performances, and they’re quite good. Witt in particular gets across a smart, dogged woman of the theater who isn’t falling for this or that and isn’t leaving without her daughter.
Harr gets across a sort of End Times louche. life, love, hope, the essentials of humanity, are but abstract concepts now. Doom does that to a guy. And when that takes hold, you don’t fear death, but you lose any sense of morality and humanity.
“Cadaver” is gorgeous to look at — the ruined city reminded me of that classic British post-nuclear thriller “Threads” — and well-played, but predictable enough to amount to a mixed bag of a thriller. Still, at under 90 minutes, it gets to its point and makes its impressions in a near rush, and wastes none of the viewer’s time doing it.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, graphic violence, sex
Cast: Gitte Witt, Thomas Gullestad, Thorbjørn Harr, Tuva Olivia Remman, Trine Wiggen
Credits: Written and directed by Jarand Herdal. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:27