Callum Windsor’s modern interpretation of The Erl King retains the atmospheric chills of the original Johann Wolfgang von Goethe poem.
In the famous ballad, a young boy becomes ill and his father saddles his horse to rush his son to the doctor. Along the journey, the boy envisions the haunting spectre of the Erlkӧnig—commonly translated as the Elf King or Erl King—trying to lure him away from the realm of the living with bribes. His father believes he is delirious. He cannot see or hear the supernatural being his song refers to and attempts to give rational explanations. But as time passes, the boy becomes more fearful for his life. He screams, making his father increase their pace. Upon arriving at the doctor’s hut, he finds the child has already died.
In this retelling, the team of screenwriters explores the ripe territory of grief. The story focuses on a mother and son named Julia and Alfie (Louise Elliker and Lewis Hyman), reeling from the death of the patriarch of the family (Simon Victor). In the shocking opening scene, we see Alfie and his father get into a horrifying crash after stealing the boy away in the middle of the night. The scene then uses a smash cut to transition to Julia observing Alfie play from afar. At a school carnival event, Alfie becomes separated from his mother. Upon finding him, he says he saw the Erl King off in the woods beckoning him. This encounter is followed by a tense discussion where Julia tries to make Alfie come to terms with his father’s death.
What adds to the eeriness of the proceedings is that the Erl King appears to resemble the young boy’s father, who we barely glimpse at the beginning of the film. It makes the connection to the spectre more tangible. It also adds to the disconnect Alfie has with his mother, given how much the boy references the things he’d do with his father.
As the film progresses toward its downbeat ending, the grief on display is palpable. An ominous string score underscores the action. If the film possesses any perceivable fault, it would be that the performances do not seem come across as natural as one might expect; but since the film features relative newcomers to acting, such a qualm is unimportant. What matters is that the actors carry the weight of the material as much as they can in the short runtime.
The Erl King features an effective blend of non-diegetic sound and visuals—especially a nightmarish nutcracker). The film succeeds in creating a creepy atmosphere. It also encourages one to reread the original poem.
Sean Woodard serves as the Film Editor for Drunk Monkeys and a Co-Producer of the faith and spirituality podcast, Ordinary Grace. Focusing on a wide variety of interests, Sean’s fiction, film criticism, and other writings have been featured in Los Angeles Review of Books, NonBinary Review, Horrorbuzz, Cultured Vultures, and Los Angeles Magazine, among other publications. He is currently a doctoral student at University of Texas at Arlington.