The words ‘made for television’ are likely to send a chill through the heart of the dedicated horror fan. After all, for every TV horror gem like Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot or Nigel Kneale’s ground-breaking Quatermass franchise, there’s a wealth of cheap ‘haunted house’ movies and several faithful but entirely toothless Stephen King adaptations. Ironically enough, one of the more noteworthy King-produced mini-series of the 2000s was Kingdom Hospital, an English-language reworking of the 1994 Danish TV series The Kingdom (a.k.a. Riget), which is finally getting a UK DVD release this month. Supervised by writer/director Lars von Trier, The Kingdom was intended to be shown in three separate mini-series, but the third and final instalment was never made. Since several key characters have now died, it seems unlikely the series will ever be completed.
Set in Denmark’s largest hospital, The Kingdom is perhaps best described as the mutated offspring of a hospital-based reality TV show and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, but even that doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. Shot on multiple hand-held cameras, the footage has been heavily processed until only a grainy, yellow sepia-like tone remains, providing an entirely false note of cinéma vérité. Several central characters are introduced, including Krogshoj, an unambitious junior registrar with a knack for diverting hospital supplies into other avenues; the intolerable Stig Helmer, a megalomaniac Swedish doctor trying to avoid a malpractice suit; the elderly Mrs Drusse, a medium who believes the hospital is being haunted by the ghost of a young girl who died there 80 years before, and many others. Naturally, these characters provide endless material for comedy: Mrs Drusse tries to fake any number of illnesses so she can get re-admitted and continue looking for the ghost, while Stig Helmer ends each episode by standing on the hospital roof, looking across the sea towards Sweden and hurling abuse at the idiotic Danes.
However, it would be a mistake to categorise The Kingdom as a comedy. From the very first scene - an obsolete ambulance briefly appears outside the hospital in the middle of the night, with no driver visible - it is obvious that there is something very wrong here. A pregnant doctor’s unborn baby grows at an incredible rate; a child’s cries can be heard in the elevator shaft; blood begins to run down the walls, and the buildings themselves seem on the verge of collapse. In the hospital kitchen two teenagers with Down syndrome handle the washing up, and also serve as a Greek chorus, keeping the viewer up to date on the various developments. As the series progresses the horrific begins to take centre stage, although there are always humorous elements present. The Kingdom‘s horror might seem tame to viewers of Saw and Hostel, but von Trier manages to establish - and increase - a surprising level of tension and atmosphere, something that suits the work much better than explicit violence and gore. It might not be to everyone’s taste, but The Kingdom is absolutely essential viewing for lovers of horror or fantasy, as well as anyone with a passion for the weird.
Originally broadcast in two seasons of four episodes each, the first season was edited into a single movie for a British VHS release in 1998, but this is the first time that both seasons have been available in this country. Thankfully, the new release includes all the supplementary material found on the Danish box-set, so we have scene-specific commentaries, trailers/TV spots, background details and some of director Lars von Trier’s more memorable commercials.