(This is part of our Night Visions Back to Basics 2022 festival coverage.
It’s hard to upend tropes. More often than not, the result ends up feeling smug. Like you’re condescending to the very material you’re trying to subvert. Even if you try to pull the rug out at the last minute.
This is why Upurga worried me in the first twenty minutes. It leans heavily on its inspirations, even namedropping Deliverance as subtly as a sledgehammer. I shifted in my seat uncomfortably. Worried it was going to be one of those films.
By the time its ruthlessly efficient 85 minutes were up, Upurga proved me entirely wrong. This is a smart, eloquent, and thoroughly unnerving celebration of folk horror. One that revitalizes the tropes it smartly sidesteps. The feature debut from documentarian Ugis Olte is a haunting journey into the familiar that reveals itself far deeper than first expected.
Set on the banks of a wild and untamed river on the Estonian border, Upurga embraces its moody tone from the outset. This isn’t a fairytale forest covered in lush greens and romanticized pastures. It’s damp, cold, and miserable. Like midsummer in Finland. The water is pitch black. A mirror of horror.
Naturally, the snotty influencers who’ve come to raft this place are oblivious to every sign indicating danger. All except Andrejs (a fantastic Igors Selegovskis), who sees danger everywhere. Once a competent wilderness guide, a devastating accident has left him a quivering mess. Not that the others would listen to him anyway.
A local authority figure warns them to stay on the river, not bank anywhere, and leave as soon as possible. They don’t. The next morning, Andrejs wakes up alone in a place he doesn’t recognize. The others are missing. All he has are memories and vague visions. Something animalistic and nightmarish happened here.
Upurga strikes a beautiful tone between traditionalist and modernist. Elements nod their head to ethereal visions from Tarkovski. Others bring to mind the moody hallucinations of David Lynch. You’re never quite sure which world you’ll wander into next.
Visually, Upurga feels at least twice as expensive as it actually is. There’s rarely a wasted shot in the entire picture. The incredible sound design and score nail you to the seat. You get a sensation like nature itself is screaming. The roots of the forest hum heavily as they shift in place.
Smartly utilized drone footage gives us the scope but also disorients us even further. Olte’s past as a documentarian shines as well. His camera is intensely focused on faces and their personal geography. The expressive cast gamely gives it their all, too. There are moments throughout that left me stunned by how far everyone is willing to go. But more than that, it’s impressive how restrained Olte keeps his film. Upurga could go off the rails at any point, yet Olte’s classy directing never allows that to happen.
And while the answers at the end don’t fully satisfy, Olte’s vision deserves praise regardless. Upurga goes exactly where it needs to without needing to explain itself. In the end, it makes perfect sense in a dreamlike way. It lingers in the mind as a frantic memory like the best horror films. I can’t wait to see what Olte makes next.