BINGE-R #4: Midnight Sun + Van Helsing
MIDNIGHT SUN S1
Streaming Service: SBS On Demand
Availability: All eight episodes now streaming
“The Great Torment is coming,” announces an indigenous shaman in the second episode of Midnight Sun, and that might as well be a rallying cry to fans of Scandi noir. This Swedish crime thriller, set in the country’s remote Arctic far north, is a super-charged example of the genre from the opening scene, where a man (the legendary Denis Lavant) regains consciousness only to find himself tied atop a helicopter rotor that is powering up. The centrifugal force builds to a bloody resolution, which is a similar dynamic to this taut series.
Once his remains are discovered – “who reported it?” asks an official, “a reindeer keeper,” he’s told – and the victim is identified as French, the investigating Swedish prosecutors, Rutger Burlin (Fargo’s Peter Stormare) and Anders Harnesk (Gustaf Hammarsten), are joined by Parisian police detective Kahina Zahdi (Leila Bekhti). Soon this task force, operating in a place where the sun always shines, are finding more bodies than answers, whether savaged by wild animals or just flat out tortured. The question is never is this a conspiracy, but rather how darkly deep it runs.
Midnight Sun was created and directed by the team of Mans Marlin and Bjorn Stein, writing mainstays of the much remade Swedish series The Bridge and intermittent filmmakers (see, uh, 2012’s Underworld: Awakening). With their grim foreshadowing – every corpse gets a lingering close-up – and widening net of yet to be linked characters, they stoke your anticipation and keep upping the story’s stakes. There’s nothing subtle about their attitude to plot, but their talent is in the way they (mostly) juggle the storylines and personality traits they keep layering across the vast landscape.
Beyond the sacrificial pyres and grim portents is a story about identity. Both Kahina and Anders are at odds with their past: she has a family member she refuses to acknowledge, while he was raised by a Sami (or Laplander) mother, making him part of an indigenous community he has tried to leave behind. Both seekers hold their true selves close, and as the show grows to engage with environmental degradation and community betrayal you realise that the attraction of Scandi Noir is the revelation that any society, no matter how well balanced it appears, is full of flawed people barely getting by. It makes for a readily watchable experience.
VAN HELSING S1
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All 13 episodes now streaming
The best thing going for Netflix’s Van Helsing, an action-horror series set after a vampire apocalypse, is the Foley work. In a show where blood serves as both sustenance and unnatural force, the sound of it being spilled is a masterclass in gory expressionism: every bite has a consumptive lusciousness, every stab a squelching spill. The rest of the show, a concise if overly familiar study of physical and moral endurance that plainly recalls The Walking Dead, falls short of that bloody benchmark, which each episode emphasises by extending the unadorned sound mix over the stark title screen.
The show begins in 2019, three years after a massive volcanic eruption in Wyoming put enough volcanic ash into the atmosphere to weaken the sun’s rays. Allowed out in daytime, the secret vampire population bites – and turns victims – at will, growing at an inverse rate to society’s collapse. When “feeders” and “ferals” break into a locked down Seattle hospital (sadly not the one from Grey’s Anatomy) they attack the deceased but strangely well-preserved Vanessa Helsing (Kelly Overton), whose unpalatable blood and fierce fighting skills disposes of them once she literally comes alive.
Van Helsing was created by Neil LaBute, the American playwright and filmmaker whose works span 1997’s crucial independent release In the Company of Men and that hideous 2006 remake of The Wicker Man. Betrayal and dominance is a recurring element in his work, and that gets pounded into a recognisable genre shape here. The human survivors collected around Vanessa and her bodyguard, veteran Marine Axel (Jonathan Scarfe), are scared, suspicious, and prone to turning on each other. There are monsters outside and within.
The second episode provides their background from 2016, although Overton’s performance is so grimly determined that it’s hard to believe Vanessa was ever anything but a vampire slayer. The undead hierarchy is menacing in a minor Eurotrash way, and the fight scenes are frequent but often boilerplate in execution, leaving Van Helsing as a mission-based thriller that does just enough to keep those partial to this supernatural style of mayhem satisfied. Everyone else may not want to take a bite.
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