While North American audiences are probably familiar with Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital, not everyone knows that it was a loose remake of a Danish television series called simply The Kingdom (or, in Denmark, Riget), that was broadcast in four parts, directed by none other than Lars von Trier (he of Dancer In The Dark fame).
The first run of The Kingdom is split up into four episodes as follows: Part One - The Unheavenly Host, Part Two - Thy Kingdom Come, Part Three - A Foreign Body, and it all wraps up in Part 4 - The Living Dead Rather than give a specific breakdown of what happens in each and every one of those four episodes, let's instead take a look at a more general overview of the whole shebang, to avoid spoilers that might unintentionally ruin it for anyone who hasn't been lucky enough to see this masterpiece yet, via either one of the import DVD releases or the old Image laserdiscs..
Set in modern day Denmark, The Kingdom is a new hospital that is essentially the best of the best – the best equipment, the best doctors, everything is as modern as it can be and this facility is really on the cutting edge of technology. Unfortunately for the patients and for the employees who roam the halls of this massive structure, The Kingdom also appears to be very, very haunted.
Things first take a turn towards weirdsville when the ghost of a small girl makes herself known to one of the patients there, an older woman named Mrs. Drusse, who happens to be able to communicate with the dead and as such is a bit of a spiritualist. Mrs. Drusse isn't really all that ill, but she continues to find new and unique ways to get herself admitted to The Kingdom so that she can investigate the ghosts she knows call the building home. When Mrs. Drusse begins communicating with the ghost of the girl, the senses a very strong sadness about her and as such, she takes it upon herself to help the spirit find the eternal peace that she so obviously craves.
As Mrs. Drusse goes about trying to unravel the mystery of who this girl is, she finds out that over one hundred years ago she was killed on the very same land that the hospital now stands on. Things start to get stranger and stranger as her snooping around uncovers more and more about the restless spirit and soon she enlists the help of her son, Bulder, who is employed as an intern at The Kingdom, to help her with her work.
While the Drusse's are poking around trying to help the ghost, a neurosurgeon named Dr. Helmer who has arrived from Sweden to take over practicing at The Kingdom is having issues with two of his co-workers, Dr. Hook and Administrator Moesgaard. Helmer doesn't even try to hide the fact that he feels that he is above his Danish counterparts, and he treats them like the inferiors he believes them to be. The only person in the hospital he has anything other than hatred for is Dr. Rigmor, and there's obviously a mutual attraction between the two – though Helmer maintains that they keep their affair a secret.
As if the soap operatics of the Swedish neurosurgeon and the ghost of a little girl weren't enough, there are also shorter plot lines thrown in here revolving around a pathologist who is obsessed with obtaining a live tumor to study, a medical student who finds himself involved in a strange case of what could only be cannibalism, and a severed head that shows up in strange spots and at very awkward moments. And then there's the bizarre pregnancy of Dr. Peterson... there's no way that's going to end well.
A perfect blend of horror, mystery and quirky humor, The Kingdom is a completely engrossing series that starts off as a medical drama very much in the vein of something like E.R. but soon proves to be very much its own unique animal. The influence of filmmakers like David Lynch and David Cronenberg seems to permeate von Trier's episodic tale, but it never seems to feel derivative of their work, even if sometimes it does feel very much like Twin Peaks.
Performances are generally solid across the board, with Ernst Hugo Jåregård stealing the show as the diabolical Dr. Helmer, the man you love to hate. His role is pretty slimy and he really puts himself into it, but every once in a while the story reminds that he too is human, so it's not impossible to feel for him despite his ugly nature. Kirsten Rolffes as Mrs. Drusse is also very good, she's a completely likeable old coot and even if she might be a little off her rocker, you can't help but want to know what happens to the poor old thing.
Shot partially in his Dogme style (thought not entirely), von Trier manages to give The Kingdom a gritty atmosphere (it was all shot on 16mm and then blown up to 35mm to give it that intentionally grainy look that is often times inherent in that procedure) that serves the storyline well. The colors of the hospital are rather sickly looking at times, creating a strange sense of unease in certain scenes. Some of the imagery, as off the wall as it as at certain points throughout, is pretty creepy stuff and while it never goes so far as to be gross out material (this is hardly a slasher or a gore film we're watching), some of it is pretty disturbing. This makes for an interesting contrast against the very human drama that unfolds in the series, as well as the lighter, more humorous moments that the four episodes are peppered with.
While Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital had its moments, it wasn't nearly as strong as this original Danish version. The humor isn't as prevalent but the scares are scarier, the atmosphere is much thicker and much more tense, and the story definitely flows in this tighter, better paced telling of the story.
The 1.33.1 fullframe image looks appropriately grainy and almost scuzzy in spots. There's some grit evident throughout and sometimes the lighting makes things look pretty pale, almost washed out in spots. This is obviously on purpose and while sometimes this type of stylistic choice falls flat, here it works quite nicely and it captures the tone and the mood of the series very well. There's some mild evidence of compression artifacts in a couple of spots, you'll be able to spot them in the black areas during some of the darker scenes, but thankfully it's not too horrible. Edge enhancement is kept firmly in check and line shimmering isn't ever anything more than a mild annoyance. Overall, The Kingdom looks good on DVD.
The Danish Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo soundtrack is fine, and suffers from no noticeable hiss or distortion. The dialogue is clean and clear and easy to follow and the sound effects and music come through nicely. The levels are balanced properly and the optional English subtitles are free of any typographical errors and easy to read.
Spread across the two discs in this set are a few interesting extra features to enjoy once you've finished with the four episodes themselves (make sure you do it after, otherwise you'll potentially spoil some of the twists). First up is a behind the scenes featurette. While it's fairly brief, this footage does give us a glimpse at von Trier's working methods and it also contains some interesting candid footage of the cast and the crew on the set of the production.
There's also select commentary by Lars von Trier throughout the set. When you select this option you'll get to hear his take on the production, some of the odd things that happened while they were making these episodes, and how he achieved what he wanted for certain specific scenes in the film. While it would have been nice to have a complete running commentary over all four of the episodes in the set, this is at least an interesting peak inside his brain, even if it isn't as thorough as most fans had probably been hoping for. Throughout the commentary bits, which are in Danish with English subtitles, von Trier is joined by scriptwriter Neils Vorsel and editor Molly Stensgard. There's a nice mix of humor and insight in these discussions, and von Trier's closing comments involving the one and only Udo Kier are quite amusing.
Rounding out the extra features are a trailer for The Kingdom as well as a pair of television spots, all directed by Von Trier. Both discs contain some nice menu screens and each of the four episodes is divided up into chapters.
The coolest and creepiest television series to hit airwaves since Lynch's Twin Peaks, Lars von Trier's The Kingdom receives a very nice two disc DVD release in Region One after what seems like years of waiting. Highly recommended for those with a taste for the bizarre and the macabre.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.