Thursday, August 19, 2010

Danskjävlar!

Film: Riget (The Kingdom)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Let’s assume for a moment that ghosts exist. If we go by the traditional thoughts and beliefs of ghosts, the most likely places a ghost would inhabit would be either a place important to that person in life, or the place of that person’s death. Based on that, it would be an easy assumption that hospitals would be the most haunted places in the world, since hospitals are where most people die.

Riget (The Kingdom), a mini-series made for Danish television, takes that basic premise and runs with it in several different creepy directions. The series of four episodes, totaling about four-and-a-half hours, takes place at the largest, most technologically advanced hospital in Denmark. This hospital, called “Riget,” is experiencing a rush of spectral, otherworldly, inexplicable events that occur either in the hospital or in the lives of the doctors and patients.

Riget is, for lack of a better way to explain it, a medical soap opera from hell. Get rid of the supernatural elements, and it would be a very boring week of General Hospital. This is not to say that Riget is boring or dull. On the contrary—it’s fascinating, and this is entirely because of the disturbing and supernatural elements.

Like any good soap opera, there are a variety of plots that roll around and bounce off each other. When the director has enough space for 280 minutes of film, he’s able to give weight to more than just a single driving story. The main character is Dr. Stig Helmer (Ernst Hugo Jaregard), a Swedish neurosurgeon who has been forced out of his country because of research he stole and published under his own name. Helmer is a complete bastard, the stereotypical doctor who thinks he is God himself, and he despises almost everything about Denmark. Typically, episodes end with Helmer standing on the roof of the hospital screaming about “Danish scum.” Sadly for the brusque and rude Helmer, he botched an operation on a young girl named Mona (Laura Christensen) early in his tenure at Kingdom Hospital. The girl is now in a persistent vegetative state, and Helmer needs to destroy the records of the surgery to keep his own job. Helmer is dedicated to science and frequently squabbles with his love interest, Rigmor (Ghita Norby), who is interested in holistic healing, herbal therapy, and voodoo.

Enter Mrs. Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes), a sensitive who complains of neurological problems in her hands. She hears the sound of a child crying in the elevator, and with the assistance of her son Bulder (Jens Okking), a porter at the hospital, she investigates and finds evidence of the ghost of a girl named Mary (Annevig Schelde Ebbe), who died there in 1919.

Helmer’s foil is Jorgen Krogshoj (Soren Pilmark), whose name is translated as “Hook” according to the subtitles. Hook is also a neurosurgeon, and frequently butts heads with Helmer because the two disagree on almost everything from the way the hospital is run to treatments for specific patients (particularly Mrs. Drusse). Hook lives in the basement of the hospital, a fact known only to a few. Here he collects various objects from the hospital that are being misused (he claims) and redirects them elsewhere. In truth, he runs an active black market, using what he acquires to get what he wants. He has a relationship with Judith (Birgitte Raaberg), who is pregnant by another man. The baby is growing at an unnatural rate, and as evidenced later in the series, there is more than just the growth rate that is unnatural—evidence comes to light that she was actually impregnated by a ghost.

We also have Dr. Bondo (Baard Owe), who teaches at the hospital. He collects medical oddities including, as it turns out, the preserved body of Mary, the ghost girl. A dying patient in the hospital has a huge tumor on his liver, and Bondo is denied the ability to extract and preserve it. Instead, he has the liver, tumor and all, transplanted into his own body as a way to keep it in the hospital’s collection.

Bondo’s main rival is Mogge (Peter Mygind). Mogge is a student who is madly in love with Camilla (Solbjorg Hojfeldt), who spurns him. As a way to stay close to her, Mogge enrolls in a sleep study (run by Hook), where he has disturbing and terrible dreams. Mogge is the son of another doctor, Einar Moesgaard (Holger Juul Hansen), who tries to run Kingdom Hospital as a touchy-feely place, complete with a collection of doctors who form a lodge called the Sons of the Kingdom, where they look out for each other and cover each other’s back.

A pair of dishwashers (Vita Jensen and Morten Rotne Leffers), both suffering from Down Syndrome act as a sort of Greek chorus. We get short snippets of them washing up and discussing the events of the hospital. And this says nothing of the ghost ambulance that arrives every night and vanishes. Or the very special guest appearance by Udo Kier.

Obviously, there’s a lot going on, which makes sense for something that was essentially a short-run soap with spooky stuff happening. It starts very slowly—most of the first episode is really just setting up the characters and giving us the very basics of the supernatural events. We don’t see anything incredibly disturbing until the very end, when Mrs. Drusse investigates the elevator shaft and gets her first look at Mary. From there, however, things begin to weird up quickly, getting far stranger and more disturbing in the second episode and downright creepy in the third and fourth.

As with any good film that tries to truly terrify instead of just go for the gross-out, we learn things slowly, getting new information only as we need new pieces of information. Much of what we see early on is not explained until much later in the series, as it should be. Many of the plots are interconnected, and as we learn about one, we learn about another, and pieces of one affect another.

Much of the reason for the effectiveness of this series comes from the way in which it was filmed. Every frame has a distinct sepia tone, and the cutaway shots of the hospital that act as transitions here (and presumably commercial breaks when this was originally shown on television) are completely sepia. While these are interesting, it’s more interesting to me that the main film itself is so oddly tinted, as if it were dipped in a wash of brown. The camera work looks to be hand-held cameras frequently, which gives this a documentary feel, which is also effective here.

Another effective thing here is that there are a number of comedic touches throughout the film. Many of these are darkly humorous, such as the sequence in which Bulder, Mogge, and Helmer all need to break into the records room at the same time and attempt to bully each other into leaving or avoid being seen by each other. Comedy and horror are often tightly intertwined, and here they are inseparable. A small part of this comes in the form of co-director Lars von Trier talking about his work over the credits.

The only thing that really disturbs me here is that many of the medical procedures are shown not in full, but at least in part. I don’t mind gore, but there’s something about surgery that really bothers me. I don’t want to see brain surgery from the top of the patient’s head, or the really meaty parts (pun intended) of the liver transplant. It’s the same reason I never really got into shows like ER. Even parts of NCIS bug me at a deep level, and I could have lived without it here.

Good stuff. This was vaguely remade as Kingdom Hospital with Stephen King’s name tacked onto the front. There was also a sequel miniseries made that followed up where Riget left off, and evidently left as many questions unanswered as this one does. Still, even though most of the plots are left unresolved, it is very much worth watch from end to end. Sadly, because of the deaths of two of the principal actors (Jaregard and Rolffes) as well as the male dishwasher, it is unlikely that the third and final installment will ever be filmed.

Why to watch Riget: Supernatural chills that really work.
Why not to watch: Some surgical procedures are not hidden, and most questions are left unanswered.

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