“Hey, you got bedroom farce in my folk horror!” “You got folk horror in my bedroom farce!”
Now that’s a swerve I didn’t see coming: The Third Day, heretofore a gripping drama about grief, pain, and the fact that something ain’t right with the locals, opens with a bit of sex comedy. Well, it doesn’t quite open with it — Sam, our protagonist, first has a nightmare in which he watches an occupied camper burn and finds himself covered in a child’s blood — but it’s the first scene set in actual reality, as far as we know. Waking from his bad dream, Sam turns to find Jess, the American tourist he’d been carousing with through the night after his long and difficult day yesterday, sleeping beside him. Whoops!
Neither of them remember what happened. Neither of them are quite sure anything did happen, come to think of it, though their lack of clothing and the discovery of tell-tale tissues eventually convinces them they did, in fact, fuck. Considering how anxiety-inducing the rest of the show has been, their dilemma, the stuff of a thousand sitcoms, feels fresh and funny by comparison.
But things don’t stay light for long. In a series of conversations that punctuate the episode, Jess and Sam reveal their troubled, and in Sam’s case tragic, pasts to one another. Jess says that a combination of depression, heavy drinking, and (it’s hinted) sexual indiscretions cost her custody of her children. To see them, she must remain on her best behavior at all times, lest her husband — who supposedly never lets her leave the country without someone reliable to spy on her, a detail Sam doesn’t seem to notice but which we in the audience sure do! — use the courts to revoke her privileges.
Later, after wandering the island and seeing some kind of church revival tent in which Jason, the father of the girl Sam rescued in the premiere, is seen kneeling shirtless and crying, Sam reunites with Jess and tells his own story. His son was murdered by a Romanian asylum seeker after he and Sam became separated at a fair. (Sam says he was dealing with “an intense call,” another detail dropped and not yet picked back up.) Every year, on the anniversary of the day his body was found, Sam drops a piece of his clothing into the nearby river. “It’s the only way we can let go of him,” he says of himself and his wife. “One piece at a time.”
“You can’t share [pain],” he says near the end of a searing monologue from an episode that boasts several. “Agony’s bespoke. Yours is yours, theirs is theirs. Mostly, grief is lonely.” It’s a bracingly sad glimpse of what his family life must be like back home.
Then things get weird.
He visits a local archivist, Mimir (Börje Lundberg), whom he finds passed out drunk in the lawn outside his dilapidated dwelling. Inside, Sam finds a newspaper clipping about his son’s case and realizes Mimir was the man who performed his autopsy. Men wearing the strange and deforming masks associated with the island’s festival show up and lead Mimir away at the end of a crowbar as Sam flees.
He discovers the camper from his dream, and as in his dream, it’s been burned. He sees his son, who runs off into the tall grass. Hooded men begin emerging, cutting off his escape, forcing him into the woods. There, they pelt him first with nails, then with a chunk of metal that misses his head by mere inches. Sam runs. The masked men nearly catch up with him — until Jason shows up with a shotgun, which he fires in their direction to scare them off.
“My child is dead because of you,” Jason tells Sam, half-sobbing, half-growling. Sam is stunned, since Mr. and Mrs. Martin, the couple who run the pub and inn where he stayed, have assured him that Epona is alive and well after Sam came to her rescue, though they won’t let him see her.
“It’s coming,” Jason says after a brief, brutal proclamation about the power of hate. “The darkness. The darkness is coming.”
So Sam runs back to Jess and tells her everything — about his frightening encounters, about his dreams, about the pictures of Jack the Ripper’s victims he keeps finding, the whole nine.
And then Mr. and Mrs. Martin appear to make everything right. They’ve got Epona with them, and they explain that Jason lost another child, a son, in an accident; when he’s in a drunken state, he blames everyone, hence his anger at Sam. The Ripper pics? They’re tourist bait, since there was a rumor that Charington, the aristocrat who brought paganism back to the island to make his workers more productive and unified (a very, very Wicker Man plot point, but I’ll allow it), was rumored to be “Saucy Jack.” The killers in hoods? Just a bunch of stupid teenagers playing pranks. See? Everything’s fine!
Except that Mrs. Martin can sense that Sam does harbor hate in his heart for the immigrants from whose number his son’s killer came. And in his next conversation with Jess, Sam admits exactly that. Moreover, he reveals that he was diagnosed with “episodic psychosis” brought on by the trauma of losing his son; episodes involve extreme paranoia, the conviction that everyone is lying to him, and even hallucinations that the boy is still alive.
And so it seems that the day’s events are explained away. But instead of leaving the island, Sam drives just far enough out on the causeway to text his wife, who seems a bit frightened but very tolerant of Sam’s erratic behavior at this time of year, that he’s still okay. He heads back to town, watches the festival’s dry run become a late-night bacchanalia, and drops acid with Jess. (Not something I’d do on a day I’d flirted with death and madness, but okay.)
And as he hallucinates beautiful lights and flowers, the Martins appear. Larry (John Dagleish), the chief local thug, is coming to kill him along with his mates for an alleged crime against Epona, who’d kissed Sam with gratitude earlier in the evening. The Martins separate Sam and Jess. Sam hallucinates flying as he watches other people soar through the sky. Mrs. Martin, whose face becomes distorted and then normal again like an on/off switch, leads him to a castle, where she leaves him to see if “the coast is clear.”
A massive wound appears in his stomach, like the animal mutilations he’s witnessed. He rubs it shut. Then he starts looking right at us.
“Hello?” he says right into the camera. “Someone there? Epona … is that you?”
It’s not Epona, nor is it us in the audience. It’s Larry and Charington (Richard Bremmer) bearing a crowbar and a burlap sack. Bang, thwack, and Sam is left alone, bleeding in a field, a bag over his head. Roll credits, behind which revelers dance around a bonfire, upside down.
I promise you there’s a good reason so much of this review is just the breathless recitation of the plot. It’s like that because the plot has reached that magical point that horror movies, the good ones anyway, arrive at midway through. So much is happening, so many threats are emerging, so many false leads are being tried and rejected, that the resulting feeling borders on intoxication. Your heart and mind race even as you remain glued to the spot, trying to keep up, trying to identify the danger — and worrying, on some lizard-brain level, that the danger has the ability to reach out and identify you. This is thrilling filmmaking, raw and weird and alive, like the rituals it chronicles.