Sundance Breakout ‘Handling the Undead,’ Where ‘Dread Infuses Each Frame,’ Sells Wide for TrustNordisk (EXCLUSIVE)

Thea Hvistendahl’s “Handling the Undead,” fresh off its Sundance premiere, has already scared multiple buyers into submission, Variety has found out exclusively.

Starring “The Worst Person in the World’s” Renate Reinsve and sold by TrustNordisk, it has been picked up by Hungary (Vertigo Media), Benelux (September Film), Switzerland (Filmcoopi), France (KinoVista), Spain (Avalon Distribution), Korea (Pancinema), Japan (Tohokushinsha Film Corp.), Taiwan (Swallow Wings Films) and ANZ (Signature Entertainment).

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Neon Rated acquired North American and U.K. rights.

In the Norwegian film, Mahler and his daughter, Anna, mourn the too early passing of his grandson. Tora says her final goodbye to her wife at the funeral home, while a family of four face a life without a wife and mother.

Then, a strange electric field and collective migraine spread across Oslo on an especially hot summer day. Television sets, lightbulbs and electronics go haywire, and suddenly, it’s all over. Except for one thing: the incident has awoken the newly deceased.

“I find this blend of arthouse and horror really inspiring and it was extremely important for the film to have talented actors who could play out this absurd premise in a realistic and empathetic way,” says Hvistendahl.

Anders Danielsen Lie, Bjørn Sundquist, Bente Børsum, Bahars Pars and Inesa Dauksta round out the cast.

“I am so very grateful to have such an excellent ensemble, [because] they were able to keep their performances very subtle yet nuanced.”

Hvistendahl wrote the script alongside acclaimed writer John Ajvide Lindqvist, also behind “Let the Right One In” and “Border.”

“I’m fascinated by how he creates the perfect balance between dread and social realism, as well as manages to have really interesting characters. It was very important for me to make sure this sense of dread infuses each frame in the film, blending in with the drama and charging it with tension and unease,” she says.

Debuting director has developed a taste for genre cinema partly thanks to his work.

“I’ve always liked eerie, mysterious and psychological pieces that fluctuate between drama and mystery. But I haven’t really been a proper ‘genre watcher’ until I started reading John’s books and discovering filmmakers like Lucile Hadžihalilović [behind ‘Earwig’], who inspired me to make my short ‘Children of Satan’,” she says.

“When I was making it, I felt that my visual language finally came into place. It made me want to continue exploring genre elements in my stories.”

Despite a recognizable premise, Hvistendahl wanted to avoid “classic zombie look and behavior” in the film.

“This story is more about grief than fear,” she says.

“It was important for the audience to understand the hope and love the living feel when they’re reunited with their loved ones. We tried to make one feel empathy for the undead in one scene and unease in another.”

Handling the Undead
“Handling the Undead”

She adds: “I wanted to keep them as naturalistic and realistic as possible. Also because this is actually much more unsettling to the human brain.”

It was crucial to disturb the viewers, she notes.

“Death isn’t ‘nice.’ It was important not to hold back where [this message] had to be clear. Personally, I also enjoy it when scenes or shots hit you hard.”

Produced by Kristin Emblem and Guri Neby for Einar Film, “Handling the Undead” is co-produced by Zentropa Sweden.

“The film has a subtle yet incredibly powerful and emotionally compelling tone and style that sets it apart from conventional horror movies and immediate scares. It gradually creeps under one’s skin and offers a unique and thought-provoking experience that sheds light on the realities of loss and grief,” says Susan Wendt, managing director of TrustNordisk, calling Hvistendahl’s debut “very impressive.”

“I think people are drawn to this because it’s different from conventional narratives in the genre. We are very excited to have so many great distributors on board and I am sure more will follow after.”

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