Danish helmer Lars von Trier’s first film since “Zentropa” (1990) is a lunatic, “Twin Peaks”-like meld of black-comedy soap and Z-grade horror flick that looks like an instant cult item among auds willing to go the stretch. Though the 4 1/2-hour running time places it beyond the pale for anything but ultra-specialized theatrical distribution, this strikingly realized work is a natural for festivals and specialized TV sales outside the U.S.
Shot on video for Danish TV, pic unspooled at Venice in a 35mm transfer divided into two parts, each containing two episodes. Though pic’s vid origins remain obvious, the quirky nature of the material (mostly printed in orange-sepia tones, recalling von Trier’s first feature, “The Element of Crime”) lends itself to such a look, and von Trier’s impressive use of Dolby translates into a thoroughly theatrical experience.
Tone is set from the very beginning with a mock-lugubrious voiceover detailing the history of a giant Copenhagen hospital known as the Kingdom, built on ancient marshland once used as bleaching ponds. Over murky shots of chlorine vapors and a hand groping upward, audience is told that “cracks are starting to appear in the edifice,” with the broader message that the spirit world is ready to do battle with the arrogance of 20th-century science. Blood bursting through a wall, followed by rock ‘n’ roll-backed main titles, kicks the yarn off in punchy style.
Episode one (“The Unheavenly Host,” 66 minutes) starts slowly, with intimations that the labyrinthine building is haunted by a dead child as the large cast is intro’d in mock-soap style.
Characters include an arrogant Swedish neurosurgeon, Helmer, who loathes Danes and has turned a young girl, Mona, into a vegetable through a bungled brain operation; his lover, anesthetist Rigmor, who’s into Haitian voodooism; Mrs. Drusse, an old spiritualist who fakes illnesses to stay in the hospital and solve the haunting; a doctor, Hook, who runs a black market in medical supplies from the basement; Bondo, an obsessed head of pathology; Moesgaard, hopeless head of the whole place; and Mogge, jilted in his love for a sexy doctor. Two retarded dishwashers in the kitchen function as a kind of Greek chorus.
With an eye on the pic’s epic length, von Trier lets the black comedy seep out slowly, but some 30 minutes in, it’s clear something is rotten in the Kingdom of Denmark. Despite its high-tech facade, the hospital is peopled by obsessives: Mogge saws a head off a corpse and presents it to his inamorata, senior staff are bound together by some kind of obscure Masonic brotherhood, Helmer is covering his tracks over the mismanaged op, and the sidewalk is cracking as the spirit world forces its way up.
By episode two (“Thy Kingdom Come,” 67 minutes), Mona’s alter ego is haunting the building in a major way, the severed head has gone AWOL, and the Masonic group is planning an illegal organ transplant from a dying patient. Most of episode three (“A Foreign Body,” 70 minutes) revolves round various parties secretly raiding the hospital archives for incriminating documents. Meanwhile, a doctor, Judith, is suddenly heavily pregnant with a strange fetus, and old Mrs. Drusse has made contact with the ghost, a young girl murdered in 1919 by her father (Udo Kier), one of the original building’s founders.
Pic’s grand finale (“The Living Dead,” 76 minutes) has Helmer jetting off to Haiti to practice voodoo on his enemy, Moesgaard; Mrs. Drusse exorcising the dead girl’s spirit in the basement; and Judith giving birth to a huge alien form while a group of politicians tour the building.
Shooting in a semi-docu, hand-held style, with antsy cutting, von Trier lets the lunacy slowly grow out of the complex web of escalating events, all played in straight-faced manner by the excellent cast. As the corrupt, overweening Swede, Ernst Hugo Jaregard carries the pic in grand style; veteran actress Ghita Norby hits just the right note as his quietly loony lover; and, as Mrs. Drusse, Kirsten Rolffes trots steadily through the pic like some spiritualist Miss Marple. All other players are on the button. Most of the filming took place in the actual hospital of the title.