Original take on the hereafter: ‘The Returned’

Original take on the hereafter: ‘The Returned’

French series explores the impact of the return of the dead

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: [l to] Frédéric Pierrot and Pierre Perrier in the French series, “The Returned”
The found footage phenomenon, kicked off with the seemingly now forgotten “The Blair Witch Project” back in 1999 and steamrolling along thanks to the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, has tricked audiences into believing simple bumps and shadows dancing just off screen are the stuff of nightmares. However, real horror plays off the more timeless fears of the unexplained. Imagine early Man’s first encounters with lightning, passing from day to night or the first raindrops falling from the sky. How about that very first elongated shadow seemingly attached to the body?As we’ve advanced, we’ve been able to provide ourselves with logical explanations for many of those earlier phenomena that spooked us so, and we’ve taken to normalizing the monsters – vampires, werewolves – and boogeymen – Frankenstein’s monster, The Mummy – of our fictions. We are in the midst of a zombie craze, fixated on the notion of the dead returning as unthinking and unfeeling shells of their former selves, intent on feeding an insatiable, instinctive hunger.But what if our dearly departed came back much as they left us and simply wanted to pick up where they left off?

“The Returned” – a fascinating French series from directors Fabrice Gobert and Frédéric Mermound, which premiered on the Sundance Channel – not only gets under the skin, but also teases us with a bit of low-simmering terror by grounding the supernatural in the everyday lives of a French alpine community beset by a growing number of returnees from the hereafter. The first season kicks off with eight episodes that offer glimpses into the final moments of a particular character before shifting to their emergence in the present, where they struggle to adjust to a world that has moved on.

The show walks a narrow tightrope, incorporating helpings of Stephen King, in particular the decade-old TNT series based on his short story collection, Nightmares and Dreamscapes – minus the cheeky humor of some of those installments – and Tom Perrota’s “The Leftovers,” a novel about a U.S.-based community of those left behind who attempt to uncover what’s next for them, which is being developed as an HBO series combined with the urgent episodic vibe of television serials like “The Wire.”

It’s a hard to define cross-hybrid. Think “Twin Peaks” meets “The Killing,” although “The Returned” never wanders off into the kinky maze of the surreal David Lynch mapped out. While it borrows from modern crime drama, it is an emotional procedural – rather than a fact-based exploration – because it is about the slow removal of scabs, the literal raising of the dead. Imagine Lazarus walking out of the tomb, but there’s no Jesus standing around to claim responsibility for bringing him back, and poor Lazarus just has to figure things out for himself. Why is he back? How is his family going to take having him back? And what if Lazarus has been dead for not just a few days, but years, and when he comes back he’s the same age as when he died? It’s trippy stuff.

Heady, indeed, but not without its fair share of creeps. This isn’t a zombie-styled play on the return of the living dead or a straight-ahead religious allegory. Gobert and Mermound have no interest in the religious conservatism of a world of Left Behind-types crying over their lost salvation. Nor is the aim to arrive at some quick resolution, some pat rendering of the mysteries that have gained new life from beyond the grave. The horror, as always, returns to our human reactions to things we can’t explain away.

 

Music Box Films Home Entertainment will release the complete first season of “The Returned” (3-disc DVD or 2-disc Blu-ray sets) on Feb. 11, 2014 including a host of bonus features.

 

 Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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