How did COVID-19 become a popular theme in 2020’s horror slate when 2020’s horror slate wasn’t in production before COVID-19 spread over the world like too much Nutella on toast? Between Sea Fever, The Beach House, Color Out of Space, The Grudge and Blood Quantum, pandemic panic is the horror sub-genre du jour, each film centering on either literal or figurative outbreaks sowing sickness, paranoia and despair through communities. But fears of plague can’t always be literalized. They surface in unexpected areas, too, and in unexpected ways.
Johannes Nyholm’s Koko-di Koko-da roots through the stack of anxieties felt under COVID-19’s stresses, picks out a single thread and sings a wicked nursery rhyme about it: The film isn’t about disease, but about living the same day on repeat while you’re grieving. Nyholm unwittingly considers the consequences of an outbreak without building a narrative around one at all, a happy accident made happier by the fact of the film’s long road to commercial release. Koko-di Koko-da premiered at Sundance 2019, secured a distribution deal for November of that year, got pushed back to March 2020, got taken off the calendar by COVID-19, and now, roughly a year after its original intended release, is finally here to give viewers a mirror for examining their dread. At least none of the characters catch a deadly virus!
Three years after losing their beloved daughter, Maja (Katarina Jakobson), Nyholm’s protagonists, husband and wife Tobias (Leif Edlund) and Elin (Ylva Gallon), go camping to commemorate Maja’s passing and repair their crumbling marriage. But the woods are home to a three-piece band of devilish fairy tale characters who wander upon Tobias and Elin’s tent and gleefully murder them. Cue a tinny music box theme and suddenly Tobias and Elin wake up at the start of the same day to relive the nightmare once again. And again. And again.
The trio—Sampo (Morad Baloo Khatchadorian), Cherry (Brandy Litmanen) and ringleader Mog (Peter Belli)—have their sadistic idea of fun with Tobias and Elin, who in turn scream and die. Each time loop ends with Nyholm’s camera (guided by Tobias Höiem-Flyckt and Johan Lundborg) floating overhead, as if someone’s helplessly watching the brutality from on high. But there’s neither god nor reason here. Koko-di Koko-da resists logic and functions on a surrealist wavelength. If Funny Games and Groundhog Day fused with impressionist art, this is what the finished product would look like. (Animated interstitials featuring a family of rabbits similarly torn apart by an unthinkable loss sprinkle a little Guillermo del Toro on top for good measure.) Tobias and Elin can’t escape their anguish over Maja any more than they can escape their tormentors, at least not without self-reflection.
In Koko-di Koko-da, self-reflection is violent and shocking. Whether the greater surprise is in the violence itself or how Tobias and Elin, who over time maintain scant memory of their prior deaths, react to their grim predicament is a different matter. Tobias cowers and flees the scene, leaving Elin to Sampo, Cherry and Mog’s mercy. Nyholm appears to suggest that this is part of Tobias’ grieving process: Foolishly he tries to run away from it, and from Elin, rather than confront it. He keeps getting it wrong. Elin is quicker to accept her circumstances, adding a layer of gender studies to Koko-di Koko-da’s dreamlike designs. But no matter how many motifs Nyholm works into his plot, the film stays streamlined and economical at a slim 89 minute running time, leaving little room to over-announce those motifs and less room for neat assessment.
Koko-di Koko-da feels like a macabre amusement park ride, appropriate given Mog’s outfit choice. Dapper in his white suit and boater hat with the wolfish allure of a carnival barker, Mog stands out. Belli’s charm gives the movie’s unreality a sinister filter: He’s cheerful, playful, thoroughly merciless, and a locus for the supernatural punishment inflicted on Tobias and Elin. Sampo and Cherry both wear far rattier clothes that better align them with the setting. You’d expect to run into them in the deep dark woods. Mog looks like he should be selling tickets at the fair. Here he’s conducting a different kind of show entirely and grounds Koko-di Koko-da’s uncanniness with his leering cruelty. He’s a hoot in a film that defies easy comprehension and pricks away at the audience’s existential neuroses.
Someday, one intrepid horror journalist will sit down at their desk, fire off a salvo of emails, make a few dozen calls, do the legwork, and tell the story of how 2020 became the year of pre-pandemic pandemic horror. In the meantime Koko-di Koko-da deserves appreciation for exceptional craftsmanship and command of tone. Nyholm’s horror explores a side of bereavement where nihilism collides with unexpected hope: The way through collective mourning is horrible, but that means there is indeed a way through.
Director: Johannes Nyholm
Writer: Johannes Nyholm
Starring: Leif Edlund, Ylva Gallon, Peter Belli, Morad Baloo Khatchadorian, Brandy Litmanen, Katarina Jakobson
Release Date: November 6, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.