Foreign round-up: Black Lake S1, I Know Who You Are S1-2, Witnesses: A Frozen Death S2E1-2

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During Taking The Short View’s unplanned hiatus, we’ve had a few new entries in BBC Four’s Saturday night foreign crime spot; a Scandinavian horror mash-up, an over-wrought Spanish potboiler, and a brooding French crime thriller.

Black Lake

Scandi Noir has had such a huge influence on British drama over the last ten years (think of Broadchurch to name but one series that would have been very different without the Nordic influence), so it was strange to see just how generic the recent Black Lake (Svartsjön) horror mini-series was.

Originally shown on BBC Four’s Saturday night Nordic Noir spot on Saturday nights in September and October, this Swedish/Danish/Norwegian co-production is clearly intended to grab a wide overseas distribution deal. It’s about as straightforward a haunted house mystery as it’s possible to get, referencing the likes of The Shining, The Blair Witch Project, The Grudge, Poltergeist, And Then There Were None and Paranormal Activity. It even features a spooky caretaker (Nils Ole Oftebro) straight out of Scooby Doo! He would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for those meddling kids…

Full of seances and ouija boards, psychic possessions and inexplicable accidents, flickering lights and strange creaking noises, and best of all a mysterious locked door to the unexplored cellar which opens all by itself, it could scarcely be more derivative of decades of horror clichés. It brought little of an identifiable Nordic spirit to the proceedings in turn, with the exception of the striking architecture and interior decor of the remote ski lodge in which most of the events take place.

The gist of it is that thrusting (and unlikeable) young businessman Johan (Filip Berg) is considering buying a long-since abandoned ski lodge. He’s unaware of the bloody crime that was committed here decades ago. His girlfriend Hanne (Sarah-Sofie Boussnina) – already labouring under the weight of a tragedy from her own past – picks up on the disturbing undertones, and soon the party of family and friends that have joined Johan and Hanne for the weekend start to diminish in number…

It really is a load of hokum. But for all that, it’s pretty enjoyable hokum. Unlike its US and UK counterparts, there’s no attempt to wring post-modern meta humour out of the scenario and the whole thing is played commendably straight by all concerned. As you might expect, it’s all beautifully photographed and the location shooting in the snow-capped Swedish setting is as spectacular as you could hope for.

Black Lake is far from being world-changing, but as a piece of genre pulp it’s better than most of its ilk and is certainly diverting enough over its eight 40 minute instalments to hold your attention. You don’t even have to try to hard to follow the plot, because it’s all about the creepy atmosphere, scares and jumps. The underlying story (which includes a disturbing foray into Sweden’s wartime brush with eugenics) is unimportant to the point that it doesn’t really hang together if you give it more than a moment’s thought.

It’s a shame BBC Four didn’t hold back showing this at Halloween or over the dark, chilly nights around Christmas. That way, it would have given the viewers a good excuse to huddle under the blanket in front of the fire for an effectively therapeutic shiver down the spine. But then again, such scheduling is what DVD boxsets are for.

I Know Who You Are

I Know Who You Are (Sé quién eres) could hardly have been more different from the ScandiNoir shows that have been such a success with UK audiences in the past decade. This sunbaked hit drama from Spain couldn’t be any bigger, bolder, more overheated and overblown if it tried: it makes the 80s supersoaps like Dallas and Dynasty look tame and timid by comparison.

It starts with a man found wondering down a country road. He’s been in a car crash and can’t remember his name. Eventually he’s identified as controversial lawyer Juan Elias (Francesc Garrido) – and he quickly becomes the prime suspect in the disappearance and presumed murder of his niece Ana Saura (Susana Abaitua.)

Early on, the question is not only whether Elias is guilty – and if he is, will he get away with it? – but whether he’s entirely faking the amnesia. But so much happens in each episode that there’s practically a new cliffhanger-worthy revelation every ten minutes. As a result of the hyperactivity it goes off in so many different directions that you really have to hold on tight to stand a chance of knowing what’s happening.

Garrido is a magnetic presence at the heart of the piece, but the nature of the role requires him to be somewhat blank and unknowable. That means the supporting players are especially important, and for my money it’s Blanca Portillo as his strong-minded, complex but ruthless wife Alicia who steals the show. As a result, when she’s sidelined after being brutally attacked herself the show suffers a rare dip in momentum.

The series runs for 16 episodes of around 75 minutes, although the last two are feature-length. It does come across as being somewhat made up as it goes along, with some of the early story lines and major characters ending up dropped or sidelined the writers get increasingly distracted. Characters recover from life-threatening injuries to be mobile again within the hour when the script demands it. At other times it feels like it’s going in circles and repeating itself because it needs a ‘do over’ on some aspect of the plot. But the pace of the show – hugely enhanced by a terrifically effective soundtrack by Arnau Bataller – is so furious and the story so fiendish that you’ll want to stay on board anyway simply to find out just what the heck is going on and how it’s going to turn out. As the series goes on pretty much everyone is implicated in some bit of wrongdoing or other, so in the end it comes down to the question of exactly who is going to pay the price.

My main complaint about the show is actually about how BBC Four scheduled it with back-to-back episodes every Saturday night. That meant committing to two and a half hours in one sitting, which is very hard work when something is as full-on helter-skelter as this. The problem reached ridiculous heights in its final week when the expanded length of the last two episodes meant a three and a half run time. That’s simply too much: I ended up watching one episode and leaving the last one for several days and catching up on iPlayer.

A word of warning too about the DVD release from Arrow Films. I Know Who You Are was originally made to be shown in two seasons (of ten and six episodes respectively) but Spanish TV changed its mind and showed the whole thing in one run. BBC Four followed the original approach, and a DVD of the first ten episodes was duly released over the summer. Now that the BBC has aired the final six episodes, Arrow have released all 16 episodes in a new ‘Complete Series 1 and 2’ boxset. Unfortunately anyone who bought the first boxset will have to double dip to get the final six episodes as there’s no separate ‘series 2’ edition. It doesn’t help that the original ten-episode boxset was labelled ‘The Complete Series’ when it was released, when it definitely wasn’t. A serious caveat emptor on this one.

Witnesses: A Frozen Death E1-2

The original series of French crime thriller Witnesses (Les témoins) aired on Channel 4 in 2015 and the first episode was reviewed here at the time. It had a deliciously macabre premise and some excellent cinematography, although I confess that for me the story rather unravelled as it went on and it ultimately didn’t live up to expectations.

Perhaps that’s why I’m slightly wary of saying too many good things about the second series, subtitled “A Frozen Death”, which started last weekend having jumped channels to BBC Four. Once again there’s a great attention-grabbing premise, and it looks as impressive as the first run did; I’m just wondering if it will be better able to sustain the quality and the appeal over an extended run of eight episodes.

It’s a completely new story and you don’t need to have seen the first series to jump in, although Marie Dompnier returns in the lead role of detective Sandra Winckler. She’s called to a crime scene where 15 frozen corpses have been left in a stolen bus in the middle of a deserted road. The victims have been missing for up to three years, and the only common link between them is that they all dated the same woman at one time or another. The problem is, Catherine Keemer (Audrey Fleurot) herself has also been missing for three years…

If that doesn’t hook you then I don’t know what will. I certainly want to find out more. I just hope that the rest of the series doesn’t slowly fizzle out like the first one did, but for the time being I’m willing to risk the disappointment and see where the investigation goes.

Black Lake and I Know Who You Are are available on DVD. Witnesses: A Frozen Death is currently airing on BBC Four on Saturdays at 9pm.

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