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{Glasgow FrightFest 2023} Pensive

Teen horrors are an escapist and crowd-pleasing staple of horror cinema. They are Scream-style slasher killers in American suburbia, romantic zombie comedies (Warm Bodies, 2013), and slapstick black comedies with teenagers facing satanic monsters (Babysitter, 2017). These fright machines combine gruesome humour with fast-paced kills. Generally, it can be easy to dismiss teen horror as films designed for a quick buck at the box office. 

Debut feature film director, Jonas Trukanas, based in Vilnius, Lithuania, has taken a different tack. Pensive (2023) played at FrightFest Glasgow in March 2023, an arm of the U.K.’s largest international thriller, fantasy, and horror movie festival. The film takes place within a dark rural landscape and combines psychological horror with more conventional gore and jump-scares. Trukanas and his co-writer, Titas Laucius, started developing Pensive‘s screenplay in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic as Lithuania and other countries went into lockdown. Indeed, the claustrophobia of this writing environment seems to have created a heady and memorable film that reflects themes of isolation and confinement. Putting the spotlight on a troubled teenage protagonist, Pensive is a mash-up of teen slasher and folk horror’s most memorable elements. 

Coming-of-Age Horror 

Pensive is an unusual combination of horror film and coming-of-age drama. The film takes place at the end of a high school class graduation. Lithuanian teenager Marius Lowery (Šarūnas Rapolas Meiliešius) gets together with his classmates at an all-night party in remote, isolated woodlands. The film stars a new generation of Lithuanian actors. Marius’ classmates bring in memorable performances by graduates or students from the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre. The group offer a set of solid performances as a group of teenagers whose friendships are fraught, to say the least.

The party plan to rendezvous at an empty cottage. Marius’ mother is brokering the cottage for a client and Marius is sneaking his friends into the property behind her back. It’s the perfect destination for a final, alcohol-driven rave to see out their high school years. However, the good-time group is not alone. An ominous warning of danger stands at a crossroads in the isolated woods. It’s a large wooden sculpture of a man with carved features screaming in horror. 

Pensive Christ

These statues are based on the wooden sculpture of the Pensive Christ. These sculptures have special symbolism for Lithuania. Pensive Christ sculptures are scattered throughout the Baltic states. They are carved from wood and combine a Lithuanian tradition of sculpture with Christian symbolism. The film’s tone takes an unnerving shift when the teenagers stumble across the sculptures. They make fun of the sculptures but their creepy presence in the film provokes unsettling questions. Are they harmless artworks that are attuned to Lithuanian culture and history? Or are they, instead, a sign of someone in the forest watching them? You can almost hear the slow and sluggish approaching footsteps of a monster in the distant woods. They are the steps of a monster that should not have been awoken. 

Trukanas has a history of experimenting with horror and thriller film conventions. His earlier works include the short films Ghost I Don’t Remember and When the Lights Go Out (2018). Additionally, Trukanas’ debut short film Booksmuggler (2011) won the Audience Favourite Award at Vilnius International Film Festival. Yet Pensive is his first feature and is certainly attuned to more memorable themes and imagery within folk horror. The isolated setting in the Lithuanian forest affects the mind and resilience of the teenagers. The themes are obvious: we cannot underestimate nature, and it can easily destroy us.

Forests and Folk Horror

To reveal much more about the plot, which channels everything from Michael Myers-type pursuits to imagery associated with folk horror, would spoil any element of discovery. Pensive combines humour with suspense. This ambition is especially evident during a grueling and claustrophobic sequence that will have audiences holding their breath. 

Trukanas has previously flirted with horror tropes in his earlier short films. Yet with Pensive, he delivers a thriller that builds on these experiments to conjure an outlandish folk horror that is reminiscent of the sights and sounds of more well-known folk classics. In terms of tone, the closest companion piece to Trukanas’ eclectic film in British cinema is Ben Wheatley’s psychedelic film A Field in England (2013). This eerie horror film combines creepy and off-kilter references to English history with surreal visual horror. If he had taken inspiration from Wheatley, Trukanas’ film could easily have called this film A Forest in Lithuania, with the landscape and setting central to Pensive

Pensive is An Unconventional Horror Experience

Pensive is a film that works on a sensory level and combines aural and visual elements. Andrius Kauklys’ memorable score vibrates throughout the sequences and blends techno music with atmospheric Lithuanian folk music. Trukanas frames or positions each cinematic element to unsettle and unnerve the viewer. 

The first half of Pensive may be unsettling for those expecting a conventional horror film experience. It’s likely that you may find yourself sitting on the edge of your seat and wondering when the jump-scares will start arriving. Likewise, others might enjoy the satirical, self-aware coming-of-age elements that dominate the film’s earlier sequences. Ultimately, if you’re ready to enjoy the twists and turns of Pensive‘s plot, this is an enigmatic piece of cinema from an interesting new directional talent.

Pensive played at the Glasgow FrightFest in March 2023.