There’s a lot about Requiem that will seem readily apparent once the premise is explained to you, and even if you avoid that, will become readily apparent after its small smattering of plot setup. That’s because plot isn’t really the point, despite its seemingly dense mystery. The series, from creator Kris Mrksa (who wrote all three episodes screened for critics), is less an investigative drama than a ghost story procedural about identity, shame, memory, and secrets in the lives of a professional cellist and her mother, who commits gruesome suicide in the pilot’s first 15 minutes.
This is seemingly tied to the Welsh toddler Carys’ disappearance twenty years before the events of the series, which Matilda Gray (Lydia Wilson) and her mother, Janice (Joanna Scanlan), have a connection to. Matilda, reckoning with the sudden, brutal suicide, finds herself sucked into a weird world that’s more paranormal than Lisa Irwin. That’s Requiem’s strongest element and also the genre complication that prevents it from achieving excellence.
Matilda—played sharp and brittle by Wilson, with shades of Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander (and not just because of her bangs)—is possibly the abducted Carys, with knowledge of a Welsh mansion she’s never been to (as Matilda, that is) and possibly not. Her nightmares (Visions? Repressed memories?) could be the result of any number of supernatural causes, but they give the series far more atmosphere than most criminal mysteries.
By shipping Matilda and her literal accompanist, Lionel Richie-lookalike Hal (Joel Fry), to Wales on a fact-finding mission, Requiem buries its leads in bad vibes, bad dreams, and bad omens—all initially explained away by anxiety, but doubled-down on by the kitchen-sink horror direction of Mahalia Belo.
There are far-off, Jason-Bourne-watching-you-on-a-rooftop shots coupled with raspy sound effects to imply the constant surveillance the protagonists are under—and that’s just one technique Requiem pulls out of the cinematographic toolbox to make us uneasy. There’s weird, off-putting slow motion that isn’t quite unsettling—which the slower speed could achieve if used for uncanniness rather than just emphasis—and comes at unexpected moments. There’s a whispery horror score that feels right at home among the setting’s reflective surfaces and dread, though the over-the-top haunted house sound design of breathy growls can wear thin from overuse. What never gets old is what we’re looking at. The stark cliffs, windblown leas, and dim taverns make Wales look like it could certainly be hiding some kind of werewolf or child-snatching, witchy Rhiannon in its pagan landscape.
But while Requiem is buiit on creepiness, it doesn’t grow much beyond that foundation. That’s because, rather than a straight mystery drama, the story is told more like the sections of a horror movie that surround the scares and attempt to understand them. It’s a series created from, for example, the priest checking the archives for possession records, or from teens browsing the library for any history of someone disappearing at the old saw mill decades before the slashings began. And, in so doing, Requiem is suitably creepy, but somewhat unsatisfactory. We’re trained to go through the rollercoaster trajectory of horror movie emotional states, so when Requiem’s subdued supernatural shocks are merely a confrontation with more atmospheric spookiness (so dimly lit as to earn more squints than shocks), the series subverts our expectations of the genre but tests our attention spans.
Its gotcha moments (its rare jump scares and more common plot reveals) are constructed as flares shot above the deep, haunted woods, used to keep the audience from getting too deeply lost into the show’s strange aesthetic without the more traditionally-minded criminal plot or horror payoff. These are much-needed, since the series can get lost in its huge ensemble, which contains enough oddball characters to resupply any population shortage in Twin Peaks, Washington.
Aside from Matilda, who, in some of her more relatable moments, drowns her anxieties in anonymous sex (the stress relief most common, and most commonly punished, in horror), there’s Carys’ mother, Carys’ childhood friend, Carys’ formerly-missing father, an ex-detective, a current detective, an antiques dealer, and an Australian heir. The latter bears mentioning once more because James Frecheville is excellent as the somewhat off, too-charming, square-jawed inheritor. Another honorable mention in the gigantic cast goes to an all-too-brief guest appearance by Bella Ramsey, best known as ice-cold kid clan leader Lady Lyanna Mormont in Game of Thrones, as young Matilda.
The clown-car cast, coupled with Requiem’s inventory of mirrors—enough to rival a film noir funhouse—makes the horror feel very old-school, especially with its slow pacing and cliched mansion tropes. The horror is psychological and supernatural because identity is thrown so far into question—in both crime and victim—that the humanity of those involved seems equally iffy. That’s a great concept, though its execution gets lost in its thick, foreboding briar. It’s a series that’s more spooky than scary, more intriguing than compelling. Requiem is excellently put together, but perhaps too caught up in its dreamy horror for something that’s supposed to carry us through six hour-long episodes.
Requiem premieres Friday, March 23 on Netflix.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.