With 'Antichrist' (2009), Lars von Trier delivered a controversial cabin-in-the-woods shocker that had husbands all over the world hiding their toolboxes from their wives. It was all a bit of a slap in the face for those who wanted to pigeonhole the director as a purveyor of sensitive art movies. But actually von Trier's roots in horror go way back to the start of his career - witness 'The Kingdom', his wonderful small-screen outing, available for the first time on DVD.
The box set contains both four hour instalments of the series, made for Danish television in 1994 and 1997. An intended third instalment never saw the light of day, so be warned, the whole thing comes to an abrupt stop with any number of loose ends in the air. Even so, that still adds up to almost eight hours of brilliant television you won't want to miss.
The setting is Copenhagen's real life premier hospital, which, we learn in a moody intro, rests upon ancient bleaching ponds full of evil emanations. Intended to be a centre of excellence and rationality, the whole fabric of the place is soaked through with eldritch influences. A ghostly ambulance makes regular stops in the forecourt, and one of the lift shafts is haunted by a little girl with a tinkling bell which sounds the death knell for whoever hears it.
Trying to lay the little girl to rest is Mrs Russe (Kirsten Rolffes), a charismatic supernatural sleuth who feigns obscure complaints gleaned from textbooks to get herself admitted to the neurological ward. Enlisting the help of her porter son, she goes delving into the hospital's secrets. Unfortunately, her ghost-hunting inadvertently makes things worse by opening up a hole into the underworld down in the labyrinthine basement.
Part of 'The Kingdom's originality lies in the way in which it weaves this classic ghost story into a busy, multi-stranded, US style medical soap. Not that any of the staff of the Kingdom could be mistaken for Dr. Kildare. Holding regular masonic lodge meetings in the laundry room, they include such creepy individuals as Professor Bondo (Baard Owe), a morbid pathologist who transplants a rare tumour into his body and lovingly nurtures it in the hope it will reach record-breaking size. There's Hook (Soren Pilmark,) the local fixer, who's not above blackmailing a callow intern for his theft of a cadaver's head. There's Hook's romantic interest, Judith (Birgitte Raaberg,) whose pregnancy by a mystery man begins to take a worrying turn as her belly swells alarmingly.
Surpassing them all in colourfulness is Helmer (Ernst Hugo Jaregard,) an internationally acclaimed neurosurgeon who's only been on the staff two months and has already got himself in a legal wrangle over a botched brain operation. An unwilling exile from his beloved Sweden, he relieves his feelings of scorn for Denmark in general and his colleagues in particular by going onto the roof and raging, “Danish scum!” Caught in a turf-war with Hook, it's not long before he's contemplating turning the insubordinate junior doctor into a zombie with a dose of poison in his morning beverage.
The tangled parallel plots combine chills and intrigue with flights of awkward, seemingly improvised comedy that foreshadow 'The Office' (there's an excruciating staff sing along which you would swear could only have sprung from the brain of Ricky Gervais.) Co-writing with Niels Versel, von Trier shows a deftness, an abundance of high spirits and a gift for cunningly slow-burning punchlines that will astonish those who associate him primarily with dour, doom-laden melodramas.
The directorial style is borrowed from the documentary feel pioneered by American cop shows such as 'Homicide: Life on the Street' and 'NYPD Blue', with hand-held cameras, in-scene cuts and jerky panning shots, but here it's taken a step further with 16 mm film stock processed to give it the ultra-grainy, bleached out look of poor quality video. After the success of 'The Blair Witch Project', this approach became almost standard in horror. Von Trier (co-directing with Morten Arnfred) deserves credit not only for getting there first but for the sureness with which he deploys what were then new-minted techniques. The moment, shot with a night vision lens, when a couple of characters stumble upon a fully-fledged black mass in one of the hospital cellars still delivers an incredible chill. ('The Kingdoms' debt to American TV was repaid when Stephen King adapted it into the glossy but ponderous 'Kingdom Hospital').
The cast are all impeccable. Kirsten Rolffes is a delight as the Miss Marple-ish Mrs Drusse, while veteran stage actor Ernst Hugo Jaregard delivers what is simply one of the great small screen performances as the 'angry Swede' Helmer. The second instalment isn't perhaps quite as strong as the first (and its an enormous pity the third instalment was never made,) but taken as a whole 'The Kingdom' is a sublime TV show which finds von Trier on inspired form. With extras including lengthy documentaries and audio commentaries, this box set is an ideal portal to a world that is as engaging as it is disturbing.
'The Kingdom' is released on DVD in the UK on the 4th of July.