NB: SPOILERS INSIDE
Ah, the comforting tones of the Swedish language on an autumn Saturday night. We’ve had umpteen Scandinavian crime dramas in the 9pm slot on BBC Four in the past, and, as the nights are drawing in, we’re once again transported to a snowy, barren, beautiful land, way up in the north of Sweden on the border with Norway. And this feels immensely comforting to me – the landscape, the language, the furniture (my god, the furniture) and that unique way so-called Nordic Noir has with characterisation and story. Blake Lake (Svartsjön), however, is no procedural – we’ve heard that BBC Four, in particular, was on the lookout for something a bit different from the usual Nordic Noir, and Black Lake certainly does provide that.
This eight-part thriller is very definitely a mash-up of genres, and first off sets itself up as a horror. We’re introduced to a group of young twentysomethings, who head off into the wilderness to a remote ski lodge somewhere up near the Norwegian border. The group is led by Johan, whose partner Hanne, sister Mette, Frank, Jessan, Lippi, Osvald and Elin make up the traveling posse. Johan has designs on Svartsjön and intends to buy it, so he’s whisking his friends off to put the facilities through their paces.
So we have a group of young people, going to a remote, locked location without any phone signal. So far, so horror movie. And, wouldn’t you know it, Svartsjön has a history, unbeknown to the group. Again, another horror genre staple.
To start with, the group have fun. They drink, they ski, they film each other with a camcorder for a laugh, chef Osvald cooks up a storm and they have noisy, uninhibited sex. But soon things start to go wrong. The first of the two episodes in this opening-night double-bill helps to build the tension. We know from the very first scene – which showed some policemen escorting a man into the cellar of the hotel – that something bad happened here, and, as the group settles, things start to happen that reference the past. Hanne, who takes tablets every night to calm her nerves and help her sleep, is especially attuned to the hotel’s atmosphere. (Again, that’s a very common device in the horror genre – one person out of the group has a connection to the place in question, often thanks to a sensitive disposition.) She hears banging from the cellar and witnesses the locked door open on its own in front of her. Thanks to her protestations, the group decides to attach a camera to a door frame overlooking the cellar door to record anything untoward. The recorded footage proves her right.
She also wonders the rooms of the hotel, finding a room once inhabited by a family. There are foreboding children’s drawings and vacant-looking dolls strewn across the place.
We know that the hotel hasn’t been open to the public for 20 years, and, naturally, the curious Hanne wants to know why. She starts to get her answers when two men – the aggressive Dag and his sweet brother, Jostein – enter the fray. We see them outside before they announce themselves to the group, Dag telling his brother that they must stick to ‘the plan’. Are they out to scare Johan and the gang?
Things take a turn for the paranormal still, when Jessan wakes up from a nightmare with a strange bruising in her right eye – like extreme bloodshot.
If episode one sets things up, episode two deepens the mystery. There’s no denying that episode one was creepy enough and pulled out all the stops when it came to horror thrills and spills – strange cellars, opening doors and bumps in the night – even though it was very much by-the-numbers.
In episode two, the group itself – as the strange activity increases – becomes frayed. Johan finds that he has competition in buying the hotel from an anonymous bidder, and he points his suspicion firmly towards the rest of the group, Osvald in particular. Jessan, meanwhile is caught entering the child’s room in a trance and, witnessed by Frank, begins to scrawl onto the kids’ drawings. She also goes into a trance at the end of the episode. She was being possessed, but by whom and by what?
Osvald, too, gets the eye thing and is seen on camera walking into the cellar. He doesn’t remember anything about it.
We also find out more about Hanne. Johan explains to Frank that she’s still suffering from the death of her brother in a boating accident and, even though he had just proposed to her, is keen to keep some details about the hotel away from her. Good luck with that, because Hanne, who has taken a shine to Jostein, begins her own investigation into what happened at Svartsjön in 1996 with his help: it turns out that a family of four were strangled and found dead, holding hands, on the property. The prime suspect – hotel owner Helgesen (the man we saw at the very start in flashback form) – had drowned himself in the lake.
And this is where it began to get interesting. Jostein tells Hanne that there are rumours of a ‘myling’ in the hotel, a Sami word that describes the spirits of dead children who return to earth to persuade someone to give them a proper burial. This just made Hanne even more intent on finding out what had really happened.
Up until half-way through the second episode, Black Lake felt like a very average, by-the-numbers horror set-up, but as soon as Hanne started to dig it became more of a mystery and almost procedural like. I liked the idea that the group was becoming frayed at the edges – Johan was seen kissing Elin, for instance – and I liked that there was an unsolved crime that needed to be sorted out.
The question at the end of these two episodes was this: are there really spooky things going on in the hotel, or is this an elaborate hoax intended to scare and intimidate the group by Dag and butter-wouldn’t-melt Jostein?
We’ll soon find out.