If you’re in search of some Halloween entertainment that’s rewardingly creepy yet short on violence and gore, look no further than The Returned, a critically acclaimed eight-part French series premiering (with subtitles) Thursday on Sundance Channel. Widely pigeonholed as a “zombie drama,” this 2012 series sidesteps pretty much all the trappings of that genre in favor of providing more cerebral, yet still very unsettling, chills.
The first episode opens with a school field trip that goes horribly wrong when a bus from a small mountain town suddenly veers off a roadway high atop an immense dam and carries its teenage passengers to their deaths far below. Four years later, the families and friends of those young victims have begun to put their lives back together again, until the night Claire (Anne Consigny), hears a noise in her kitchen and is stunned to discover her teenage daughter Camille (Yara Pilartz), who died in that bus accident, calmly putting together a sandwich. The girl, who looks exactly the same age as she did the last time Claire saw her, murmurs an apology for being late, explaining that she had suffered a blackout on the trip and then awoke on the mountainside near the road. Camille’s a little disoriented but otherwise none the worse for wear – even her clothes are tidy – and she calmly proceeds to have a bubble bath and get ready for bed as the shaken Claire calls her estranged husband, Jerome (Frederic Pierrot), and summons him to her side.
Meanwhile, this same weirdness is playing out all over the small town, as loved ones and other acquaintances who died under unrelated circumstances start stepping out of the shadows and back into the lives of the people they once knew, who are understandably freaked out by these incidents. In each case, the “returned one” has no sense of lost time or memory of his or her passing, just a sense of confusion at the changes that have occurred since then.
A sensation in Europe, The Returned, which is adapted from a feature film by Robin Campillo called Les Revenants, already has captured the attention of American producers, with Carlton Cuse, the show-runner for A&E Network’s Bates Motel, in talks to develop an American version of the show for that same cable channel.
Beautifully filmed, The Returned unfolds at the kind of deliberate pace one normally associates with arthouse fare. Don’t tune in expecting big “booga-booga!” shocks that make you jump, just a mounting sense of unease that something is terribly wrong in this little town, as the human “survivors” – including Camille’s twin sister, Lena (Jenna Thiam), who is now 4 years older than Camille – try to adjust to their inexplicable new reality. I’ve only seen the first episode at this point, but there’s nothing to suggest the “undead” characters are suddenly going to develop a ravenous hunger for brains. Nevertheless, hey, no promises.