Slow-building supernatural mysteries can be a double-edged sword: explain too little and there’s no payoff, explain too much and the intrigue is demystified. The French series The Returned (Les Revenants) (2012, 2015) is an effective example of how to walk that line, a brooding and atmospheric ensemble piece that powerfully blends potboiling horror with spiritual allegory.
It takes place in a small alpine town riddled with tragic history, including a school bus accident that claimed the lives of many local children. The drama begins when one of that accident’s victims, Camille (Yara Pilartz), turns up on her family’s doorstep ten years later, miraculously back to life at the same age she died. Camille’s family — mother Claire (Anne Consigny), father Jérôme (Frédéric Pierrot), and older sister Léna (Jenna Thiam) — are shocked, of course, but Camille is just as confused, with no memory of her death, and no understanding of what has happened to her. She turns out to the be tip of an iceberg, however, as other “returned” start showing up to haunt the town’s citizens. Among them are suicides, the murdered victims of a cannibalistic serial killer, and the many, many dead of a massive dam collapse thirty-five years in the past. It’s a vast, inexplicable mystery that comes to consume the entire town, living and dead alike, and it seems to revolve around an inscrutable, haunted little boy named Victor (Swann Nambotin).
Considering the glut of zombie show on television these days, The Returned may seem like one too many for some viewers, especially considering its glacial pacing. But it’s a quiet, almost literary take on the concept, more invested in thematic subtext than grizzly horror tropes. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a potently creepy atmosphere throughout, and indeed it’s punctuated by moments of graphic terror. But these genre components are deployed sparingly in favor of subdued human (and undead) drama. The first season in particular builds a masterful, compelling ambience, raising intriguing questions and delivering ambiguous but strangely satisfying answers. The finale delivers some epic imagery and resonates powerfully past its final moments.
The momentum slows considerably in season two, unfortunately, when the strain of sustaining the complexly spun supernatural lore starts to show. Indeed, the second season is, on some levels, unfavorably reminiscent of Lost, another series that gripped its viewers with early mysteries it couldn’t hope to successfully resolve. Even so, its season (and most likely series) finale does a commendable job tying together the narrative threads in a thematically satisfying package.
By then, perhaps some of the shine has worn off, but in my view the emotional philosophizing of the final hour is really the one logical way for the story to have played out. It’s executed in a classy, satisfying manner that leaves just enough ambiguity to provoke thought. Ultimately, The Returned is another worthy descendant of Twin Peaks, a compelling ensemble drama where the geography is the creepiest character. In my view it doesn’t quite match up to Fortitude or The Kettering Incident, but it is effectively of a piece with them, if not an influence. Fans of this kind of show likely won’t be disappointed with The Returned.