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author of unreal suspense fiction

The best Icelandic horror series! (“Katla”, Netflix, 2021)

Katla TV Series (Blog Image)

Wow! “Katla” is one of the best horror-suspense shows I’ve seen in a long time. Creepy, character based, beautifully shot, with a proper ending that hits all the right emotional notes: that’s my verdict on the initial season of Netflix’s Icelandic series “Katla.” I thoroughly recommend it.

The story takes place pretty much entirely in a small town in modern-day Iceland. The town is perched between the mountains and the sea and, as a result of a recent volcanic eruption, has been largely evacuated. Just a few people are left: a team of husband-and-wife farmers; a gruff mechanic; the town policeman, his sick wife, and their adult son; the proprietress of the local hotel; and the town doctor as well as a nurse or two at the local hospital. There are others who also pass through, including a team of scientists monitoring the recently erupted volcano.

Needless to say, the town is an awful place to live. There’s volcano ash everywhere, the water is never clean, and animals are constantly dying. It’s like a modern version of Pompeii. But this apocalyptic existence is conveyed beautifully: the visuals of this series are outstanding, with awe-inspiring shots of the destroyed town and surrounding countryside that, though depressing, make you want to hop on a plane and head directly to Iceland for a driving holiday.

The story gets started when, seemingly out of nowhere, a woman covered in ash appears near the town. She’s completely naked and has no idea who she is, where she is, or why she’s there. She’s whisked off to hospital, cleaned up, and interviewed by the police. But still no one’s any the wiser about her origins or identity. One theory is that she could be a tourist who unlawfully snuck onto the volcano and was somehow injured by escaping gas or ash. 

But then the woman remembers her name, Gunhild—and she starts speaking Swedish, not Icelandic. Investigations reveal that she is identical in name and appearance to a Swedish woman who spent time in the town about 20 years ago. The original Gunhild moved back to Sweden and got on with her life. However, on hearing of this strange development, she rushes back to Iceland. Original Gunhild and New Gunhild meet in the hospital. They’re absolutely identical, except that New Gunhild looks about 20 years younger—that is, the same age Original Gunhild was when she lived in the wee Icelandic town!

What’s going on? Why has this doppelganger appeared from nowhere? And then more naked people covered in ash start popping up around the town. Some of them are people who previously went missing or died, but some of them are replicas of people still very much alive.

“Katla” takes this premise and runs with it masterfully. Over eight episodes, mysteries build up, unpleasant histories are revealed, relationships complicate, horrible things happen, the stakes heighten, and then the various lines of plot and theme are stunningly resolved. 

This resolution is immensely satisfying, achieving effect both at the level of story and also that of emotion. This is such a rare thing, and it’s so great to see the team behind “Katla” do it so well. Sometimes you invest a lot of time in a Netflix series and the payoff ultimately isn’t worth it—well, that’s not the case with “Katla”!

Of course, the kind of premise adopted by “Katla” isn’t particularly novel. I remember the Australian series “Glitch” and the French series “The Returned” working with similar themes. But “Katla” ends much more effectively than “Glitch” did. It’s also much less ponderous and melodramatic than “The Returned” was. That’s the mark of a good horror-suspense story: take a well-used theme and treat it innovatively, giving the ideas a fresh start.

What “Katla” really stands out for is its achievements at the emotional level. Much of this is due to the quality of the acting, which is superb. Many of the actors take on dual roles, playing an original character and also its newly-emerged doppelganger. This is all done with aplomb. But the show’s success is also attributable to very careful work by the scriptwriters at the level of story. They manage to adeptly spin together the horror elements with suitable emotional counterpoints, creating a work that explores themes such as the human capacity for development and redemption, free will, the terrible ways in which we lie to ourselves, and history’s awful talent for repetition—while also thoroughly entertaining the viewer with all the trappings of a gripping horror-suspense tale. 

What this means is that, in the last couple of episodes, the story comes together in a way that is emotionally truthful but—consistent with its horror-suspense genre—also rather grim. There are terrible revelations that make for unpleasant viewing. Don’t worry, though, if you hate glum endings. For me, the conclusion was ultimately optimistic, provided you remember that confronting a dismal truth is usually better than retreating behind a happy lie. 

I have one final comment. Unlike so many tales of the unreal, “Katla” eventually provides us with a convincing explanation of the causes of all the strangeness. The writers let us know what’s behind the doppelgangers, dead people returning to life, and so forth. Though the story doesn’t dwell on this, it’s nice to see writers going to the effort of explaining things rather than just throwing a lot of weird stuff onto the screen, scaring and mystifying the viewer, and leaving it at that. 

When considered together with all else that is achieved in “Katla”—its emotional and thematic maturity, amazing cinematography, great acting, and superb plotting—it’s one more reason for you to catch this fantastic Netflix show.

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