There’s a new Swedish thriller in the all-important Saturday night BBC4 slot which launched our national obsession with all things dark and Scandi. The latest offering to occupy slot is Black Lake which was originally released as Svartsjön in Sweden and Denmark in October 2016. We’re in creepy territory from the start with the classic X-Files text wipe and tappity-tap keyboard noise. We see confused events in a cellar in 1996, just enough to pique our interest, but in no way giving us any plot points, other than it all looks pretty scary.
So 20 years later we have a bunch of wealthy-looking young people in very nice 4x4s drive off into the mountains for a ski trip. Johan is thinking of buying this abandoned ski lodge and running it as a business. His gang of mates are his guinea pigs to check it out and see if it’s worth buying. These kids are not short of cash and this is reflected in the opening sequences. It looks like an expensive car advert, with staggeringly beautiful cinematic wide shots of the perfect christmas card landscape.
Johan’s friends are well up for their holiday. There’s frantic sex in the first 10 minutes as you’d expect from the livelier European resorts. The gang tease Frank and his new girlfriend Jessen about their loud après ski. Johan’s missus is Hanne, who was also disturbed by loud banging on first night but this was far more sinister than bedroom noises. We see her get out of bed, but she doesn’t go off down the corridor to investigate in a clever subversion of what the audience expects in a horror movie. It looks like Hanne has plenty of problems before coming out to the spooky lodge; Hanne’s sister Matte asks her about he dreams, her mental health and whether she’s still “being haunted”. We quickly discover Johan knew that a family died in the lodge two decades ago but he kept that to himself as Hanne and his guests wouldn’t have come otherwise. Oh Johan, you fool!
Johan may not have the best brain for business. The neighbours arrive with homemade hooch and he handles the situation very badly. They’re talking about a fairly high-tech snowmobile business and he belittles them suggesting they could wait tables for him and whittle wooden trolls. The privileged Swedish city kids look down on country bumpkins. We also get snide comments about people from Norway and people who speak Danish (it being an ugly language by all accounts). BBC4 viewers lose this undercurrent of tension between neighbouring countries as to our ears all the Scandi languages sound about the same. We just can’t get that subtlety in subtitiles. I’m confused by the phrase we see repeated in wooden blocks and kitchen magnets – Gäädek jäämit. What does it mean. It’s the only thing not subtitled, so is that intentional? Does curious Hanne not know what it means either? So what language is it in then?
Everyone on the trip gets unsettled in some way. People develop eye problems that looks like nasty conjunctivitis and there’s reports of sleep paralysis, hallucinations and quite a lot of sleep walking. The vibe of the place seems to affect the whole group badly. The ski friends all looked interchangeable at the start; perhaps wanna-be celebs from The Only Way Is Stockholm, or Made in Malmö, but thankfully they’re more interesting than I initially gave them credit for.
Hanne is curious and seems to be our lead investigator, seeking the truth about the murdered family. But why her obsession? Even she seems unclear why it’s taken such a grip on her. Hanne’s skeptic sister and the voice of reason is Doctor Matte whose skills may well be needed if this story goes in the grizzly direction shared by Scandi noir and the best horror movies. I liked Osvald, a reassuringly fat chef who whips up fantastic food for his friends, but who actually works in property. What’s his game, sneaking about? Is he loyal to Johan or does he want to undercut his offer on the lodge? I do like Johan and Osvald on screen together – Johan in his beanie hat and Osvald wearing his sunglasses indoors; they look like the Swedish U2. And Jostein the friendly local – is he lonely and just happy to help? Or is he actually working against the group, hoping to frighten them into leaving?
The cantankerous caretaker, refusing to open the scary cellar door under any circumstances, is a bit of a cliche. And a playroom full of toys of long-dead children is a bit much, but the writers are consciously working within horror theme so the touch points and limitations are not really their fault. I’m sure it’s going to get seriously unpleasant, but the start has been gentle so far, getting the viewers interested in the characters and their motivations before the bodies hit the floor.
On paper Black Lake sounds a lot like The Blair Witch Project. I expected it to be full of silly jump scares and wobbly found footage, too dark to actually see what’s going. Pleasingly it’s slower, creepier and with a much firmer grip on reality than that. The first two episodes are confident in tone and very intriguing, certainly interesting enough to go back for another helping. At 45 minutes long in the classic back-to-back broadcast style of BBC4’s Euro evenings you’re getting an hour and a half of quality telly on a Saturday night. Not so long it’s outstaying its welcome but enough to get your teeth into and keep you wondering for the next 7 days.
Contributed by Sarah Kennedy
Black Lake Continues Saturday at 9.00pm on BBC Four.