Deep in a coal mine in Pennsylvania, archaeologist Martin Almquist (Mitchell Laurance) unearths a mysterious stone with mystic runes inscribed by Norse explorers believed to have first discovered America. Invited to examine the runes, Martin's friend and unrequited love Marla (Joan Severance) and her archaeologist husband Sam (Tim Ryan) are thrust into a nightmare when the stone somehow transforms Martin into a murderous hairy beast. While the seemingly unstoppable monster pursues Marla, wreaking death and destruction around New York, teenager Jacob (Chris Young) is plagued with apocalyptic nightmares. His grandfather (William Hickey) insists these dreams are connected to an ancient prophecy linked in turn to a mysterious Clockmaker (Alexander Godunov), a reincarnation of the Norse god Tyr, who may be the one person able to destroy the beast known as Fenrir.
An unsung gem of Nineties horror, The Runestone presents a rare authentic treatment of Norse mythology rather than the Marvel Comics interpretation more prevalent now in the wake of Thor (2011). Based on a novel by Mark E. Rogers the film refashions the apocalyptic story of Ragnarok into a fun throwback monster movie rife with a slyly satirical sense of humour. Viewers would not normally expect to find a darkly comic send-up of New York's pretentious conceptual art scene sandwiched between bloody monster murders and clever allusions to the Norse cycle of death and rebirth, but against the odds writer-director Willard Carroll pulls it off. Carroll first made his mark as the screenwriter and producer of fondly remembered Eighties animation The Brave Little Toaster (1987). Following that film's success he established Hyperion Pictures, an independent studio that produced sequels and other offbeat animated films including Rover Dangerfield (1991), Bebe's Kids (1992) and The Adventures of Tom Thumb & Thumbelina (2002), the latter of which he also wrote. Carroll's live-action output is decidedly eclectic. He followed The Runestone with Playing By Heart (1998), an ensemble romantic drama featuring Sean Connery and Angelina Jolie, children's book adaptation Tom's Midnight Garden (1999) and the Bollywood pastiche Marigold (2007).
Whilst Carroll's handling of individual suspense sequences is prosaic for the most part, he nonetheless crafts an intriguing and unorthodox narrative wherein multiple protagonists assemble pieces of a vast mystical puzzle. Top-billed Peter Riegert, of Local Hero (1983) fame, does not enter the film until the half hour mark but proves an engaging presence as the foul-mouthed, Pez candy-addicted cop who grows from skeptic to stalwart ally. Riegert's earthy cop forms part of a heroic triumvirate alongside Chris Young as the reluctant youngster and a broodingly charismatic Alexander Godunov (the former ballet dancer turned iconic villain in Die Hard (1988)) more compelling than Tim Ryan's smug show-off archaeologist who is less sympathetic than he should be.
The plot physicalizes the fear of stagnation and death inherent in heroine Marla, well-portrayed by underrated British actress Joan Severance. Marla's longing for change somehow spurs the beast Fenrir to serve as her unintentional agent of destruction that in turn entraps the other mortal players in an unfathomable cycle of death and rebirth. In its more potent moments The Runestone conveys a sense of cosmic dread vaguely similar to that found in the Italian zombie films of Lucio Fulci, minus the misogyny and gut-munching excess. Cinematographer Misha Suslov and editor Lynn Southerland contribute greatly to the interestingly fragmented and otherworldly atmosphere of the film, interweaving subtle symbolism with rubber monster mayhem. Anime fans may be surprised to discover the conceptual artist behind the designs for the bestial Fenrir was none other than legendary artist Gô Nagai, creator of Devilman among many others. Viewers will likely find the creature suit itself either hokey or effective depending on personal taste. Carroll wisely swathes Fenrir in shadows even when it is on screen, building an aura of menace. Despite an offbeat story-structure the film flows well with engagingly articulate characters, snappy dialogue and some very memorable moments (e.g. Fenrir ripping its way through a crowd of yuppies at a poncy conceptual art show; the cop impaled on a stake who performs a poignant sign of the cross as he lies dying; film noir veteran Lawrence Tierney as the police chief who maintains the culprit is "a maniac in a bulletproof dog suit"; the Clockmaker's aptly balletic showdown with the monster in another dimension). The finale deftly draws together all the threads subtly lain throughout the narrative in a manner both satisfyingly conclusive yet teasingly ambiguous. It also benefits from a fine score by David Newman supposedly inspired by Henry Mancini's soundtracks for classic Fifties monster movies Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and Tarantula (1955).