Sometimes you can go home again, but sometimes even when your life seems to be at rock bottom, the family home is just a place of darkness, bad memories and evil. In the moody, atmospheric Greek horror film The Winter (Ο Χειμώνας), down-on-his-luck writer Niko Gounaras (Theo Albanis) sneaks out of his London flat and makes his way back to the abandoned family home in the sleepy Greek mountain town of Siatista. His father died there and his mother has long since moved to the bustling city of Athens, but the family home is untouched, decrepit and filthy. But it’s somewhere to sleep.
Told in flashbacks and dream sequences, director Konstantinos Koutsoliotas’s The Winter offers occasional homage to the similarly trippy and loosely grounded 2006 mind-bender Pan’s Labyrinth by director Guillermo del Toro, but in more of an austere manner. del Toro offers a technicolor dreamscape, a world where ten year old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) can escape the horror of her daily existence, while Koutsoliotas offers a dream world that offers the only path for the increasingly troubled Niko to find the truth of his father’s mysterious death and his own childhood.
Punctuating the slow building storyline, Niko’s mother calls him all the time, phone calls that he accepts, even if he perpetually lies to her that he’s still in London, has a girlfriend and is attending parties and doing well at the publishing house that hired him and originally relocated him to England. In fact, he’s not doing well, he’s sleeping in an abandoned ruin of a home without heat or windows, and dreaming the strangest dreams…
It’s hard to believe that Niko is played by first time actor Theo Albanis: Albanis turns in an excellent, heartfelt performance as a young man who can’t quite figure out why his life is so miserable. He’s by turns charming (particularly to his elusive local love interest Eri (Vassiliki Panali)) and wracked with confusion and anger as he finds that everyone in Siatista knows what happened to his father, but no-one will tell him.
The supporting cast is also uniformly strong, notably Vangelis Mourikis as Niko’s father Dimitris, a man who dreams of treasure hidden in their family home and prefers to weave elaborate stories to his young son more than anything else, including providing for the family. The real gem of the supporting cast is the nosy and superstitious old woman next door Philio (Efi Papatheodorou), who serves as the all-too-human grounding for Niko as his time in the family home distances him further and further from reality.
To call The Winter a horror film is perhaps a disservice to this gem of a movie, because it’s a deeper and more nuanced story, an exploration of what happens when you have nowhere to go and going home might just turn out to open up more memories, and more tragedy, than you can bear. Because once you know the truth, you have to go somewhere with that knowledge…
Part of what also makes The Winter interesting is also that it’s a Kickstarter-funded film, and that director Konstantinos Koutsoliotas is a visual effects artist, but has avoided the trap of creating an effects-heavy film. In fact, the effects are secondary to the powerful and emotive performance Albanis delivers as Niko.