Halloween is one of my least favorite times as a critic. I generally don’t care for horror films or TV series that scare for scariness’ sake; I’ve never really felt the desire to watch a bunch of teenagers get slaughtered for no reason in increasingly fucked up ways. Moreover, I’m laughably easy to frighten, and paranoid to boot, so a particular image or fear might give me the chills from here to eternity. True Confession: the sight of the Scream mask still gets my heart racing after all these years.
That’s why I so greatly enjoyed the Sundance Channel’s The Returned; it feels like a work of horror made for people like me. Premiering on Halloween at 9 PM and airing every Thursday night at the same time thereafter, the eight-episode import from France is more creepy than scary (think the resurrected undead, not blood and guts), and boasts considerable emotional complexity and visual beauty to boot.
In the first two minutes of the first episode, a school bus falls off a cliff, killing all the students onboard. Four years later, one of them, a 15-year-old girl named Camille (Yara Pilartz), awakens and returns home to her parents (Anne Consigny and Frédéric Pierrot), who have since divorced but continue to attend group therapy sessions for the families of the bus accident victims. Camille, who has seemingly returned in flesh-and-blood form, initially has no idea that she has died, though the truth becomes obvious enough when she sees that her twin sister, Léna (Jenna Thiam), is now a head taller and has blossomed into womanhood. (In other words, she’s a serious hottie.)
Camille’s return from death is not as joyous as it should be. Her parents consider it a “gift,” but they have to scramble to hide her from the townspeople — and their divorce from her. And because they’re reeling from the fact that their understanding of the natural world has been turned upside down, they’re too busy to notice that their older daughter Léna, already troubled before Camille’s resurrection, is slowly breaking down from confusion, guilt, anger, and a long dormant sibling rivalry.
Camille is far from the only one to be returned, though she appears to be the only child resurrected from the bus crash — a circumstance that creates feelings of agonizing envy when the parents of the other bus accident victims eventually find out about her. Among the other “returned” characters are Madame Costa (Laetitia de Fombelle), whose elderly husband commits suicide upon her homecoming; a young rocker (Pierre Perrier) who died on his wedding day; a spooky little boy (Swann Nambotin) who follows a woman home but refuses to talk to her; and a cannibalistic serial killer (Guillaume Gouix) who begins killing again.
Yes, there is a serial killer mystery, but his identity is revealed pretty early on. Rather, the elements that make The Returned so unique and so pleasurable are the emerging connections between the townspeople, alive and undead — no one, it turns out, has more than one degree of connection in their idyllic mountain town — as well as the compelling questions of how the undead initially died and what they really are. (The press materials call them zombies, but the actual answer is much more ambiguous.)
And it’s not just the mysteries that are satisyfying. Each new connection between the townspeople forges a deeper characterization or relationship, especialy when the undead are forced to contend with how their demise affected the ones they left behind — and how the latter have moved on with their lives in their absence. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” wrote William Faulkner. The Returned agrees, its storylines playing on the twin primal fears that we might not be remembering our dead enough — and that our loved ones might want to forget us once we’re gone so they can continue to live.
As the characters and storylines multiply over the course of the season, the writers definitely lost a few threads. And the answer behind what “the returned” really are and why they’ve come back to life is a tad disappointing — in fact, it’s easily the weakest storyline among the longer narrative arcs — but given the delicious build-up that’s always nearly inevitable.
It’s easy to see why The Returned was such a hit in France and the subtitle-phobic U.K. — and why A&E is working on a remake for American audiences (sigh). Despite the cracks that appear in the writing in the last three episodes, its character-driven writing, superb acting, and pervasive sense of Lynchian not-quite-rightness make the show a great arthouse alternative to Carrie and her bloodthirsty ilk at the multiplex.