Written and directed by Johannes Nyholm
Starring Peter Belli, Leif Edlund and Ylva Gallon
Running time: 1 hour and 26 minutes
by Roderick Towers
Horror is a genre that is often open to interpretation. Some entries are easy to spot while others camouflage themselves under the banner of drama, mystery, or thriller. For me, movies like Requiem for a Dream, We Need to Talk About Kevin and Blue Velvet are, without a doubt, horror movies. Blue Velvet, in particular, I would call a nightmare movie. Everything from the color palette, to the soundtrack combine to provoke a feeling of dread in the audience. Something is not quite right and we know it, like the feeling from a nightmare that doesn’t quite fade upon waking. Make no mistake, Koko-Di Koko-Da is a horror film but more than that, it is a nightmare come to life.
As the film opens we are immediately thrust into a strange world. Three figures dressed as though they just stepped out of the pages of a children’s storybook are walking slowly through the dark woods; a large man in suspenders, a grown woman with pigtails in an oversized dress, led by a jovial older gentleman in a suit and straw hat much like Robert Preston in The Music Man. The large man carries a dead dog, The woman walks with a pit bull on a leash. All the while, Music Man whistles and begins to sing “My rooster is dead, my rooster is dead, he will never sing koko-di, koko-da, he will never sing koko-di, koko-da” The song is cheerful and yet, something sinister seems to be going on in the scene. “Koko-di Koko-da” He looks right at the camera, right at us, smiling “koko-di koko-da, koko-di koko-da”.
After this ominous opening, we find ourselves in the happy colorful world of a family on vacation. Nicknamed the “bunny family” because they’ve all had their faces painted like cartoon rabbits while on their family outing. We can tell right away that they are a close knit bunch. The kind that has you making mental notes to be a better family member yourself as soon as the movie is over. Their trip is cut short, however, as mom is rushed to the hospital due to a food allergy. Although they are shaken, it does little to dampen their spirits as they convert the hospital bed into a makeshift tent to liven up their overnight stay. The bunny family. Once again their revelry is cut short as they go to wake up young Maja to celebrate her 8th birthday only to discover that she has died during the night, a victim of the same food allergy that affected her mother. This is where the nightmare begins. That slow feeling of dread begins to creep in around the edges as we come to the realization along with her parents that she’s not waking up again. This is the cinematic equivalent of that sinking feeling you get in your stomach when you know something is very, very wrong. At this point all the wind is taken out of the movie. All the joy and happiness from before has just been replaced by one of the worst things imaginable.
“My rooster is dead, he will never sing koko-di, koko-da. Koko-di, koko-da”.
The story picks up three years later as Tobias and Elin are attempting another vacation, this time just the two of them. Obviously still grief stricken, they get along just going through the motions, with every exchange turning into an argument. Maybe then, they should have just stayed home instead of pitching a tent in these nightmare woods. The next morning as Mila sneaks away from the tent to use the bathroom, she finds herself face to face with the Music Man and his traveling companions. The older I get, the harder it is to creep me out but this trio genuinely disturbed me. I can’t pinpoint why I find them so terrifying but they are very unnerving. Maybe it’s because they feel like they don’t belong in this world. They don’t seem so much like people dressed up in character costumes but as though they are these characters. They aren’t dressed this way to provoke a response, this is who they are. It’s almost like they stepped right out of a fairy tale but not the safe ones we heard in our youth, the darker stories designed to frighten children from another era. They seem to be an abstract come to life and, if so, how do you fight back against an idea? This is where the movie transitions from the real life horror of losing to the surreal dream logic of an actual nightmare. Even though they are dressed like they belong in a children’s story, they exude a feeling of menace none more so than the Music Man. His very smile and the twinkle in his eye carries with it the threat of violence and the violence does come, swift and ugly. Elin is bludgeoned with the old man’s cane. Tobias is mauled by the pit bull. All the while the Music Man taunts them with vile comments, a sickly grin on his face. Just when we think that it’s the end for our young couple, we are back in the tent with Elin about to leave to go to the bathroom. Tobias stirs and wakes suddenly with the realization that things are about to go very, very wrong. As they begin to argue, three figures approach the tent.
“He’ll no longer sing koko-di, koko-da. He’ll no longer sing koko-di, koko-da. Kokokokokokokoko-di, Koko-da”.
We all know this routine thanks to movies like Groundhog Day and most recently Happy Death Day but Swedish director Johannes Nyholm plays with our expectations and subverts them. While Bill Murray had an entire day to relive over and over, this couple only has precious few minutes upon waking each morning before they are attacked by this group of sadists over and over and over again. There is no escape. Now if you caught me at a party and I had a few drinks in me, you might hear me say that this movie is what would happen if David Lynch directed Run Lola, Run but don’t listen to that guy, he’s drunk. While there appears to be a definite Lynch vibe running through this one, I was also reminded of Jan Svankmajer’s Alice (only without all the weird taxidermy), in the way that it unfolds in a surreal dreamlike fashion. Why is this happening? Is this happening at all? Who are these strange people in the woods? Are they meant to be the physical manifestation of the couple’s grief come to life? Is the supernatural at play? Are Elin and Tobias even alive or are they trapped here forced to suffer forever? Or is the whole thing simply a nightmare that must be endured? What about the replayability of a movie like this? Once you know what’s coming and where the movie is going is it worth revisiting? For as many questions this film raises, I believe there are as many answers hidden within. I can see myself watching this again and again. I can see the experience changing as new interpretations develop.
Johannes makes his use of a time loop more than just a gimmick by using it to explore the effect it has on each character. Tobias reacts poorly. At first he is paralyzed with fear watching Elin being attacked by these madmen but later, even when he knows what will happen, he is more concerned with self preservation. He hides while again doing nothing as his wife is brutalized. Tobias is a skunk and a turd. He has been nicknamed “Turdbias” around here. Later he becomes more and more unhinged, dragging Elin kicking and screaming to the car so they can escape the inevitable arrival of the Music Man. During the beginning of one loop Tobias is gone and, instead of running to hide, Elin goes looking for him even though she knows it’s not safe.
Even though it may not fit into the typical genre mold, there is a place in horror for movies like Koko-di KoKo-da which challenge conventions. The way that Nyholm is able to blend so many different styles in a way that all seems organic to the overall story he is telling is not easy to accomplish but he makes it appear seamless. With a unique vision full of disturbing imagery and a song you won’t be able to get out of your head, KOKO-DI KOKO-DA is a new classic in nightmare cinema.
PS: On a side note and this has nothing to do with reviewing a movie and a 100% to do with me being me, you may have noticed a kitty cat wearing a bow tie on the poster and promotional materials for this movie. I feel it is my duty to report that there is indeed a kitty cat in the film but no bowtie. I know that I will enjoy it more the next time I see it because I know now there is no kitty cat wearing a bowtie. I spent nearly the entire hour and a half runtime of this one in anticipation of the kitty cat wearing a bowtie. It’s similar to the deer skeleton that was promised in the trailer for Get Out that never appeared in the final film. That first time I just kept waiting for that deer skeleton, the same way I was waiting for that kitty cat to show up wearing a bowtie. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for the sequel.
*Playing at Fantastic Fest Sunday, September 22 at 11am and Thursday, September 26 at 2pm. Opening nationwide in November.