This isn’t really a movie, but the first eight episodes of a still-unfinished Danish miniseries that was released theatrically in two four-hour compilations. Nevertheless, it’s one of the decade’s premier cinematic achievements in the horror genre, a wild, crazy, profound and endlessly thought provoking work that’s a veritable masterpiece in its present state and, once completed, will most likely turn out to be the premier achievement of its famed director Lars Von Trier.
The Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier has long been considered one of the world’s most important contemporary moviemakers, and rightfully so; no other filmmaker has been so audacious in form or subject matter. Von Trier is the inventor of the “Dogma 95” style of filmmaking, which pioneered the current hand-held digital revolution and thrust the moribund Danish cinema into the world’s spotlight. On the other hand, he’s also caused more than his share of controversy; just look at his most recent film DANCER IN THE DARK, which was met with equal amounts of outrage and adulation (so much so that several US periodicals ran opposing reviews in the same issue).
THE KINGDOM started life as a four episode miniseries made for Danish television that became so popular it was released around the world as a four-hour feature in 1994. This in turn led to another four episodes and, in 1997, another feature. There’s been no word yet about a Part Three, although, as this is an extremely addictive series whose last compilation ended with an agonizing cliffhanger, I’d say it’s past time it appeared.
Imagine an extended episode of ER written by Stephen King and directed by David Lynch, and you’ll a pretty good idea of the tone of this outrageous, horrific masterpiece. The setting is a vast hospital known as The Kingdom, built on the sight where (a stunningly shot prologue informs us) a band of superstitious peasants once labored; once The Kingdom was constructed, superstition was apparently conquered, but “the gateway to The Kingdom is opening again!”
The characters include a wacky spiritualist whose son works as an orderly in the hospital; a xenophobic Swedish neurosurgeon who chats with his feces and forever rails against the “Danish scum” he’s forced to work with; the restless ghost of a little girl murdered on the premises years earlier; a squeamish surgeon who tries to overcome her fear by viewing a succession of gore videos; and a guy who tries to impress the girl of his dreams by giving her a severed head. That’s not even mentioning the two down syndrome dish washers who act as a Greek chorus, the driverless ambulance that cruises by the hospital each night, the bizarre group encounter sessions held in the basement, or the cameo appearances by the Angel of Death and the Prince of Darkness.
Lars Von Trier was trying something that at the time (before THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT or Von Trier’s subsequent work) seemed revolutionary: totally handheld digital camerawork coupled with on location sound. The camera never stops moving, lending the proceedings a gritty, naturalistic flavor. This has the effect of making the film seem even more bizarre than it already is, with its (deliberately cheesy) special effects and hokey situations. Add to that the brownish, puke-tinged color scheme and you’ve got quite a work whose stylistic elements seem quite chaotic-and so fit the material like a glove.
THE KINGDOM (PARTS 1-8)
Zentropa Entertainment Productions
Director: Lars Von Trier
Producer: Ole Reim
Screenwriters: Lars Von Trier and Tomas Gislason
Cinematography: Eric Kress
Editors: Jacob Thuesen, Molly Marlene Stens-Gaard