For some, a black cat is a bad omen. But in the world of Johannes Nyholm’s (Jätten) newest film, Koko-di Koko-da, a white cat is the bearer of misfortune. It is an omen of what hell is to come in the form of two heinous sideshow performers, led by a delectably evil ringmaster who hums the infectious song, “Koko-di Koko-da,” which burrows into the depths of your brain. These three humans, seemingly summoned from hell to inflict torture, are the tools with which a grieving couple can come together and somehow find happiness. Nyholm has created a twisted tale where hell is inescapable and just spins ‘round and ‘round.
Tobias (Leif Edlund) and Elin (Ylva Gallon) are the parents of soon-to-be-eight-year-old Maja. The adorable trio don bunny face paint and enjoy a dinner by the seaside in anticipation of Maja’s birthday. But, a shellfish allergy interrupts their plans as Elin’s face swells up and she can’t stop vomiting. Despite the inconvenience, the family laughs, takes pictures, and pokes fun at the entire situation. But Elin’s reaction is merely a red herring for the real tragedy: the sudden death of their daughter.
“…a twisted tale where hell is inescapable…”
The film flashes forward three years with the help of a gorgeous scene told through small paper puppets. The puppet show tells the family’s tragic story, and lends a childish tone to an otherwise bleak and horrific film. It adds an air of whimsy to Maja’s death, translating it into a tale about a family of anthropomorphized rabbits. But the whimsy comes to an abrupt end as the film comes back to the real world, to a Tobis and Elin who resent each other. But what better way to fix a crumbling marriage than a camping trip? In the seclusion of the Swedish wilderness, the aforementioned trio from hell enters the campground. A short old man dressed in white sings and taunts the couple, while his henchman, a tall girl with exaggerated hair and a giant man with a unibrow, sic dogs on them and point pistols at their genitals. The couple meets a tragic end, and then it starts all over.
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Koko-di Koko-da is relentless in its cruelty as Tobias and Elin are maimed and murdered in a continuous loop. With each death, Tobias seems to realize something is wrong and tries to escape their fate. But, no matter what he does, the ringmaster and his cronies find their victims. The repetition does get exhausting and has you questioning how much more can we really subject this couple to. Even though the film is less than 90 minutes long, it drags through each moment of torture and feels like a test of audience endurance. There is no break to the couple’s torture. Each loop ends in a violent tableau, with pointed guns, crumpled bodies, and the final notes of a wicked circus tune floating on the breeze. There is a dark beauty to these moments which are set up like paintings, pieces of strange art to be pondered in a museum. But just as quickly as they appear, they vanish, and time resets.
The first few time loops focus on Tobias hiding and watching as his wife is murdered. Over and over, he tries to save himself while Elin is shot, beaten, and devoured by a dog. The gender politics are questionable to say the least, as we are made to watch Elin die over and over, while Tobias hides himself or tries to run away. There is a shift towards the end of the film, but it comes too late; we’ve seen Elin die too many times to erase the repeated cruelty done to her body. While this is a film about a couple, the focus seems to be on Tobias’ experience and his tolerance of Elin, rather than creating an equal playing field against their captors.
Gender aside, Peter Belli delivers a show-stealing performance as the ringmaster. He giggles like an imp, flitting around characters and delighting in his chaos. His two cronies are silent, letting Belli do all of the talking. He orchestrates acts of violence like a master of his craft. You almost want him to come back on screen despite what his presence ultimately means for the couple. He is a deceptively cheery character that makes the violence all the more cruel.
But don’t expect any answers or explanation about where the group came from, aside from an illustration on a music box. There is nothing to know about them, other than they love to kill in a vicious cycle. This makes them all the more frightening; they are perhaps a children’s toy brought to life and there’s nothing cute about them.
“…Koko-di Koko-da is a demented circus played on a loop. It spirals into hell and doesn’t let the audience take a breath.”
Despite its shaky gender politics, Koko-di Koko-da is a demented circus played on a loop. It spirals into hell and doesn’t let the audience take a breath. Nyholm’s relentless story will no doubt turn many away, particularly in its repetitive battering of its protagonist. But there is a sick fun to be had in this hellish sideshow. You may even find yourself giggling at the most inappropriate moments due to clever uses of music. Underneath the violence is a tale about finding a way through grief despite the evil man singing in your face. If anything, Koko-di Koko-da will have you humming its tune for days to come.
Koko-di Koko-da screened as part of the 2019 North Bend Film Festival. Check out our full coverage of the festival HERE and let us know if you’re excited to see Koko-di Koko-da on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!