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Icelandic Folk Horror ‘Tilbury’ Summons a Milk-Stealing Demon [Horrors Elsewhere]

Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not always be universal, but one thing is for sure  a scream is understood, always and everywhere.

To the east of the Westfjords in Iceland lies the coastal town of Hólmavík. There, locals and tourists flock to the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft—a reminder of the region’s mystical past. The museum highlights arcane rituals used during hard and unusual times in the area; folks back then turned to the dark arts for many needs and wants. Whether they wanted to better their chances of surviving the harsh terrain, or they wanted to take revenge on someone, people relied on a variety of enchantments. All throughout history everywhere, magic was a common method of making sense of the world’s mysteries and overcoming difficulties. 

It was around the seventeenth century when one certain Icelandic practice was born in the Westfjords; the tilberi was created and exclusively used by women who wanted to steal milk. As seen in the aforesaid museum’s displays, the tilberi (or snakkur) is a sinuous, fleecy demon whose only objective was to collect milk from cows and ewes so witches can churn their own butter. A woman made one of these creatures by taking the rib bone from a recently buried man’s body, winding it in wool, and then placing it between her breasts. The tilberi finally came to life after its summoner spat consecrated wine on the object several times. In exchange for the tilberi’s services, a witch fed it her blood through a nipple-like growth on her thigh.

This singular folk creature is prominently featured in 1987’s Tilbury, one of two RÚV-aired movies penned and directed by Viðar Víkingsson during the ‘80s; the other being Draugasaga from 1985. The controversial, made-for-television film is set in the summer of 1940 as the British forces invade Iceland out of fear of Germany taking the island. The telefilm centers around Kristján Franklin Magnúss’ character Audun Thorarinsson, a competitive swimmer who leaves his rural home to not only find a better place to train, but also to work for the British army in Reykjavík. Before Audun departs, a parson and friend of his family seeks a favor; he asks the athlete to check in on his daughter in the city, Gudrun (Helga Bernhard).

Audun’s schedule largely revolves around swimming or doing physical labor for the British army. During his spare hours, he keeps to his word and looks up Gudrun, who is now involved with a British officer named Tilbury (Karl Agust Ulfsson). This news is devastating because Audun still carries a torch for his boyhood friend. In time though, the protagonist realizes his rival is not even human.

With Tilbury being set in the past rather than in the ‘80s, the movie has a timeless quality. The historical context ties into a theme of outsiders; the story explores the country’s anxieties during a war it wanted no part of in the first place. Iceland’s neutrality and refusal to join the Allies caused British forces to invade, and Víkingsson highlights the growing restlessness towards the unwelcome occupation. At first, Audun quietly submits like everyone else and even offers support, but upon witnessing firsthand the small shifts in everyday life as a result of the invasion, he changes his tone. He speaks up and acts out while everyone else around him just accepts the new status quo.

Traditional depictions of a tilberi are woolly and serpentine, but the one shown here is initially humanlike with only some exaggerated facial traits to suggest Tilbury is different from the other officers. Otherwise, the insidious imp’s presence goes undetected by everyone except Audun and a foil to Gudrun named Bardi Kemp (Adalsteinn Bergdal). Once Audun sees Gudrun with Tilbury in the cemetery together, he becomes jealous and paranoid. His subsequent behavior actually touches on the phenomenon called Ástandið—this term meaning “the situation” refers to the contentious socializing between Icelandic women and Allied troops during WWII. The visible effect the Allied soldiers had on women led to an active discouragement of fraternization as well as accusations of prostitution and treason when encounters happened. With new legislation introduced to quash any consorting between foreigners and women, Iceland practically changed overnight with the arrival of 25,000 British soldiers. Cultural norms were upheaved, and people moved to Reykjavík in droves. The movie being made decades after the fact is probably why it does not share the same blanket contempt for said unions, yet Audun’s reception to Gudrun and Tilbury embodies the outmoded sentiment.

Repression and autonomy are other viable throughlines in Tilbury. It all begins with Gudrun’s devout father’s request—Audun keeping an eye on the daughter in Reykjavík—and evident disapproval of his daughter’s lifestyle. He also blames people’s modern distractions when explaining why church attendance is low as of late; this includes sports, as he insinuates during his talk with Audun. However, swimming is Audun’s personal way of staying chaste and conforming to expectations. It is only when his sanctum is directly tainted do things change; the British build a gun emplacement at the pool and constantly monitor the building. Meanwhile, Gudrun has since given up swimming in search of finding her independence away from the church and her father. Using swimming as a thinly veiled metaphor, Audun urges her to continue practicing because otherwise, it is a sin not to. Both these characters are essentially on the same moral course with Gudrun a few giant steps ahead. Although by the end, it is clear Audun is well on his way to his own awakening.

This unpredictable and phantasmagoric telepic employs Val Lewton’s best visual habits and pairs well with David Lynch’s surrealism. The atmosphere here is, in a word, astounding. Once the subversive movie reaches its fevered pitch, viewers witness frenzied ballroom dancing, erotic suckling, and uncanny manifestations of childhood dreams and desires. Víkingsson packs a lot into fifty-five minutes, but it feels like there is still so much more to tell in this unique serving of folk horror.