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Lisa & Julien in Beyond the Walls on SHUDDER
Lisa & Julien in Beyond the Walls on SHUDDER

John Doyle: You want horror? Here’s more and more Add to ...

We are all a half-step ahead of something awful happening. And we all know that. That’s one of the reasons why the horror category of entertainment and its many subgenres have an enduring appeal.

And, as the whole world knows, there’s a lot of TV content to watch across countless genres and subcategories. That is, approximately 450 scripted drama and comedy series this year, across all platforms.

Well, now there’s yet another outlet for content. Starting last month, the online streaming service Shudder became available in Canada. (You can find it online at Shudder.com and it costs $4.99 a month.) An offshoot of the AMC channel, it’s an all-horror outlet. If your taste runs to having something shiver your timbers, it’s for you. And its first calling-card series isn’t bad at all.

This isn’t the first incarnation of an all-horror outlet. The Canadian channel Scream was launched in 2001 in the first wave of digital channels and did extremely well, focusing on horror, thriller and suspense movies and TV series. This sort of specialty channel has to be expertly curated, and it was.

Then, in the way of Canadian TV, some genius in marketing decided that the success of the Twilight movie franchise presented an opportunity to attract more advertising dollars. So, Scream was renamed Dusk and offered a bunch of women-in-jeopardy movies and really bad TV series about women falling in love with vampires and/or werewolves. It was a harebrained idea and promptly failed.

The channel called Chiller has existed in the U.S. market since 2007 and, while on the margins, is a going concern. It is self-described as “the only cable channel devoted to delivering viewers round-the-clock scares.”

Chiller’s primary focus is on cheesy chills, to judge by its current slate, which includes repeat airings of the movie Stag Night – “Stranded subway travellers become the prey of a pack of killer cannibals.” That might resonate with those who use the TTC in Toronto, but for now lets move from Chiller to Shudder.

Shudder is a much more art-house outfit, discriminating in its choice of it-was-a-dark-and-stormy-night tales. According to a media release, one of the curators is TIFF Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes.

The three-part French miniseries Beyond the Walls is the outlet’s main attraction right now. It’s an engaging, subtly hypnotic horror/fantasy tale that is literary in tone, gorgeously made and refreshingly unpretentious. Set in a drab contemporary urban France, it is about what happens when Lisa (Veerle Baetens, the Belgian actor best known outside of Europe for the Oscar-nominated movie The Broken Circle Breakdown) inherits a creepy old house.

We know from the briskly paced opening that Lisa is disturbingly introverted. She works as a speech therapist but says little and lives alone in a sparsely furnished apartment. At work, she tells everybody she’s married, to stop colleagues from trying to socialize with her.

We also know she has disturbing dreams and at first she thinks she’s dreaming or there’s been some surreal mistake when she’s told she’s inherited a house. It’s a sinister building and the last occupant died there but the remains weren’t discovered for 30 years. In the way that these things work in horror stories – even arty ones made in France – Lisa wants to live there.

No, it isn’t haunted. But it does give her access to a parallel world inside another labyrinthine house without windows. Strange haunting figures appear and evaporate, saying nothing. A young soldier comes out of nowhere and tells Lisa that they must hide from unspecific forces. There is little in the series that is actually violent or bloody, but it is imbued with a sense of unease that is more alarming than anything grisly.

This is a very spare, distilled journey into the world of the supernatural, with a sharp emphasis on the internal tensions of a woman’s repressed life and even more repressed memories. Everything about it is minimalist – from Lisa’s severe haircut to the small, candlelit rooms that seem to be empty but are not.

If you want your chill-inducing material delivered refined and mature, Beyond the Walls is that. In French with English subtitles, it is simultaneously exotic and unnervingly real.

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