Netflix’s gnarly new anthology series offers thoroughly snackable half hour horror stories. Critic Luke Buckmaster delivers your one-stop-shop guide to the show – and its very weird host.
Ah, the weird sensations one experiences when a familiar presence introduces diabolical tales of gut-turning horror and morbid intrigue. No, I am not talking about coming home after work and listening to your partner recount their day in excruciating blow-by-blow detail. I am instead referring to a beloved tradition within the macabre genre of the horror anthology series: the existence of a host, or host-like figure, whose presence acts as an adhesive binding together otherwise disparate storylines.
Think Alfred Hitchcock trundling his plump shadow into the frame at the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Think Rod Serling reflecting on alternate dimensions of sound, sight and mind in The Twilight Zone. Think that freakin’ hideous skeleton monster thing popping out of a coffin and cackling in the establishing moments of Tales from the Crypt.
Now it’s time to welcome a new kid to the fright night block: a splotchy-skinned bus driver whose job is to transport a dozen or so doomed passengers into their own personal hells, in Netflix’s new Norweigan horror anthology series Bloodride (see all new movies and TV shows on Netflix). The series is available in its native tongue but also, if you don’t want to read subtitles, has a decent English dub. Comprising six thoroughly snackable half-hour installments, every episode begins on board a bus during a dark and rainy night. There are always some shots of the driver, who, while nameless, looks very much like an Igor to me – so Igor he shall remain for the purposes of this article.
There are also always images of the woebegone sad sacks on board, each of whom is a character (though not necessarily the protagonist) of the various episodes. Often one of them is shown bleeding, before the show jumps back in time to a self-contained narrative detailing what they were doing before boarding this vehicle of doom and devilishness.
But what, you may ask, was Igor doing? What did he have for dinner? How long is his shift? Is he appropriately unionized, given what would presumably be a myriad of occupational health and safety concerns involved with driving around cursed, fluid-leaking commuters? Alas, we will never know. This reticent fellow coughs up nothing but other people’s nightmares.
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There’s nothing remotely original about where each episode of Bloodride goes – but they are tight, taut and entertaining, and the twists are frequently genuinely surprising. The limited running time is embraced by creators Kjetil Indregard and Atle Knudsen as a challenge to fly through stories energetically, characters having to make rash decisions very quickly. The joys of attempting to second-guess the show isn’t just about anticipating what happens, or what the inevitable last minute twist will be, but what kind of narrative we’re watching.
Are we for instance watching a haunted house story? Or something about ghosts? Or serials killers? A mix of the above? Some episodes fare better than others but even in its weaker moments Bloodride keeps you guessing and certainly keeps you entertained. With that in mind, here’s a guide to each episode that’s not just spoiler-free but very light on plot details and heavy on posing questions – geared towards embracing the show’s thick air of mystery and fun ‘what the hell am I watching?’ factor.
Episode: Ultimate Sacrifice
Molly (Ine Marie Wilmann) and her husband Leon (Bjørnar Teigen) and daughter Katja (Emma Spetalen Magnusson) have run into financial hardship and are relocating from the city to the country to save money. Their new neighbours are very nice…but are they too nice? And why do they have so many pets? And why are they smiling all the time?
Molly wonders these questions aloud to Leon, over a glass of red wine, shortly before interacting with two kooky cat ladies who let her in on a little secret. The central mystery has something to do with a stone in a nearby forest. Themes include guilt, betrayal and greed – with a schlocky, pulpy, Stephen Kingian tang. The final twist is a good one.
Episode: Three Brothers Sick
Back on the bus, a trickle of blood runs down the neck of Erik (Erlend Rødal Vikhagen), a 20-something man whose narrative unfolds immediately after his release from a psychiatric ward, where he spent the previous three years. Erik’s two boisterous brothers insist they visit a cabin in the woods where they spent time as children, picking up lots of booze – and an attractive young female hitchhiker – en route.
In the car the brothers are delighted to hear the woman say she’s single and in the mood to party. Will this be a story about the men causing trouble for the hitchhiker, or the hitchhiker causing trouble for the men? Alarm bells ring when one of the brothers pours a drink and proposes a cheers to Satan. What the hell is wrong with these people? Well, quite a lot. In hindsight the final revelation(s) seem kind of obvious – but hindsight is a convenient thing, right? Good luck figuring this one out.
Episode: Bad Writer
Olivia (Dagny Backer Johnsen) is an aspiring writer whose episode begins with lovely bright lighting: lots of sunny orange-yellow hues, reflecting her mood and disposition. She is a cheerful go-getter type personality. But that is before Olivia goes to university and attends a class instructed by a lecturer whose advice on how to write interesting drama is rather pointed: make sure you kill your characters.
Again the question beckons: where will this go? The grotesque meta results play out like King got his hands on the screenplay of Adaptation.
Episode: Lab Rats
The obligatory bus intro this time around features the extra unusual sight of a small group of people in underwear. Did they board when I wasn’t looking? Where do they keep their ticket? This story involves a handful of characters taking off their clothes, but not for pleasure. The setting is a dinner party gone wrong (to say the least) hosted by a bigshot at a pharmaceutical company who is convinced one of his guests has stolen a valuable new prototype.
Lab Rats has a different, flatter tone to the rest. It is essentially a twist on the whodunit, more or less based in a single location. Again the pressing question is not where this is going, per se, but what kind of story we are watching. Will it end in violence? Will it even be violent at all? Is this purely a gabfest?
Episode: The Old School
This one is the weakest of all: a bland but slightly kooky episode recalling the dodgy 2018 Australian horror movie The School – but, thankfully, a lot shorter. Sanna (Ellen Bendu) is a new teacher at a recently reopened primary school who has, as one of her peers puts it, “straight out of school first-time teacher experience.” All positive energy and can-do attitude.
Such optimism has no place, of course, in the contemporary human experience, so expect that smile to be wiped off her face and replaced with abject horror. If she enters the building as Kimmy Schmidt, she exits as Judi Dench from Notes on a Scandal. The creepy stuff begins when Senna encounters the school’s caretaker, who wears a beanie and walks around with a stoop in his gait – as all bad men do.
Episode: The Elephant in the Room
The riddle of who the man on the bus is wearing an elephant costume, with its head perched on his knees, who we see from the first episode, is finally answered in the final one – which at a push could be interpreted as a commentary (a satire, even) on misconduct in the workplace. The setting is an animal-themed office dress-up party, where two new employees hear weird rumours about a troubled employee named Martha.
What happened to her? And why? And where does that bloke and his elephant head fit in? Shadows projecting the figure of an elephant costume onto an office wall reminded me of the 2002 black comedy Death to Smoochy, in which Edward Norton donned a similar costume. That is not to say somebody dies. Or….cue dramatic music….IS IT?