Why did the Nisse kill the farmer’s best cow? Story goes, that a farmer left out rice pudding for his barn Nisse and wanting to play a little trick on him, buried the creature’s desired butter under the rice pudding. As the Nisse went to collect his pudding, he was infuriated by this oversight, unable to find the butter right away, and slaughtered the family’s best cow. If you keep going, he goes to the neighbor’s and steals their best cow, too, so there’s a dead cow around, but the count of cows is the same in the morning. Tricky little Nissen.
Nissen are a delightful national symbol among the Scandinavian countries, part and parcel with their pagan celebration of Jule, they are folkloric creatures like fairies or pixies, little people with old-set features who keep a barn or a farm safe, so long as the owner appeases them. These winter solstice traditions understand mythology is so much funnier if they present a violent threat to the children who believe in them.
This jovial type of imagined threat makes for a fun light-hearted premise for a winter solstice horror movie. Wintertime haunts take on a whole new value when separated from the sacrosanct expectations of a Christian Christmas, with fewer implications about Jesus and broader implications about little mischievous creatures who want to sacrifice children for the good of their farm.
There’s Something in the Barn is a fish-out-water comedy about an American family who move into a rustic old farm home in rural Norway. By Norwegian director Magnus Martens, who sharpened his axe in American television, the film playfully balances comedy about a family who have come to a strange land with the gruesome expectations of festival horror. The casting is smart: most notably, Martin Starr plays the father character and is having so much fun stepping outside of his conventional comfort zone.
The Scandanavian horror-comedy is such a fertile ground because the original folklore stories are often so hilariously brutal. See the terrific Finish film Rare Exports (2010), where Santa Claus and his elf henchmen are out to steal the children away. Combine the sensibilities of that movie with a Gremlins (1984)-like premise of an irascible little creature who, under certain conditions, becomes a menace to society. His trigger here is the brightly-displayed Americanized decorations the family puts out, perhaps also bringing in commentary about how we bring with us our Americanized ideals, and force them onto more traditional cultures where the ideas are more pure, and have birthed the original concepts of our ideas, to begin with.
There’s something to a slight jule-horror movie. Just enough fun for the whole family. About as many laughs as there are genuinely tense and considered horror moments. A nice break from the now-expected Krampusnacht thrillers that have proliferated, generally playing the same trick. When we bring our Nissen out to celebrate each year, we’ll now have a movie that we can associate with them, and presumably has great potential for further family viewings. This critic is, of course, a reliable fan of the bad Leprechaun movies and the good Child’s Play movies, so something threading the needle between their concepts and Scandi heritage fills my heart with just the right amount of holiday joy, like rice pudding with the butter put in it. No cows or movies need to be taken out behind the barn this time; this porridge is just right.