horror, Reviews, Television, thriller, TV

BBC One’s Requiem could be the best British TV horror story in years

Sorry, it’s been a slow start to the blog in 2018 as life has got in the way. But here is my first piece of the year, an introduction to the BBC’s new horror series Requiem. 

Requiem (starting on BBC One Friday the 2nd February) is a chilling thriller that mixes the genres of mystery and ghost story, but is undeniably horror. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen series in the genre on BBC One, and rarely one that starts so strong. Auntie Beeb is trying hard to spin the series as a ‘psychological thriller’ but even before the title credits run on the first episode it has mounted an major tribute to The Omen, and possibly a minor nod to Ulli Lommel’s 1980 video nasty, The Boogey Man. The later genre inference may be a little fanciful, but when was the last time you could even entertain the notion of a prime time BBC One series tipping a hat to the nasties? Not since The Damned’s appearance in The Young Ones is just my guess.

Concert cellist Matilda Gray (Lydia Wilson) is on the verge of major success preparing for a concert on London’s South Bank. But just as her stars seem to be in alignment, a shocking and apparently inexplicable personal tragedy throws her life into disarray. With her friend and musical partner Hal (Joel Fry), Matilda becomes involved in a long forgotten mystery of a child who disappeared in Wales in the nineties. It is a mystery that will challenge and unravel the young woman’s own sense of identity.

The creation of Australian writer Kris Mrksa, Requiem is in a tradition of low-key chillers that emphasis dread and atmosphere over jump scares and gore (although it still contains potentially BBFC triggering material). The opening episode begins in the brutalist urban environment of London’s South Bank. Director Mahalia Belo’s slowly creeping camera slinks through the maze-like passages between the National Theatre and Royal Festival Hall finding anxiety in the shadows. This opening mines a strain of urban unease akin to the horror fiction of Ramsey Campbell. The harsh lighting and framing of cinematographer Chloë Thomson are unusually cinematic for British television, reminiscent of Jonathan Glazers icy art-house horror film Under The Skin (you will find no higher praise than this).

When the action relocates to Wales half way through the first episode of the series switches from the Urban Uncanny to Folk Horror. This is stressed by the excellent score from composer Dominik Scherrer. In London, the music is often sharp, stabbing cello and strings. When we leave claustrophobic concrete underpasses behind and suddenly the camera is flying over the Welsh hills, the soundtrack suddenly moves into another key and the scraping cello becomes soothing harps. The music cue creates a liminal zone where the story shifts from one mode of horror to another, and that zone appears to be marked by the Welsh border.

The striking London opening has a hypnagogic mood, this evaporates like morning mist when Matilda and Hal travel to Wales aiming to track down the parents of a missing child. Struck by the unexpected revelation of Matilda’s amateur sleuthing skills, Hal remarks that he has suddenly found himself travelling with a character out of a James Ellroy novel.

After a stunning first 20 minutes Requiem briefly becomes a rather more conventional drama, with the sudden intrusion of large swathes of expositional dialogue. The cast of characters swells and new mysteries appears like whirlpools on a lake. However, once Matilda and Hal find themselves spending the night in a mouldering mansion, we are set for a revelation that turns the story on its head. And this is just the first episode.

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Matilda is a very interesting character, her angular peroxide blonde haircut gives her the look of a Scandinavian pop singer, she almost looks like an alien when in the countryside. Her personal life is shambolic. She has a series of one night stands and kicks the men out when they appear even remotely interested in a relationship that might last after the first tube the next morning. Hal is onto something with his Ellroy remark. Matilda is a lot more Sam Spade than Nancy Drew.

Actually Matilda is even more in the tradition of a giallo character.

Giallo (‘yellow in Italian, and so named after the colour of the jackets of the pulp mystery novels popular in Italy in the sixties) rose to prominence in Italy in the sixties, became a staple of the country’s cinema in the seventies, before declining in the eighties. Giallo’s were elaborate murder mysteries, often with amateur sleuths as heroes. They were more horror than crime movies due to baroque and often bloody murder set pieces, overt sexuality, and twisted villain psychology.

Matilda has a gaillo protagonists’ required exotic profession (other suitable jobs might have included jazz drummer, thriller novelist, or fashion photographer). She is sexually promiscuous and psychologically troubled. The series also has an amateur sleuthing element that is very giallo-esque also. Where Requiem differs from the Italian genre is in the introduction of the supernatural, which suggests the creative team of Mrksa and Belo like Susperia as much as Deep Red.

It is rare to end the opening episode of a drama with no idea where the story is heading towards, but Requiem does that. If you like your mysteries to run deep and dark, this could become your new favorite show.

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