Netflix series 'Dark' may not be have the same broad appeal as 'Stranger Things' but it’s every bit as gripping and arguably spookier
One reviewer has described Dark as “Stranger Things for grown-ups”. That’s the kind of glib, throwaway remark the writer no doubt thinks makes them sound desperately clever and witty, when in fact it’s just dumb and reductive.
It belittles Stranger Things, which was excellent, and diminishes this German 10-parter, which, based on the three episodes I’ve seen, has the potential to be every bit as addictive, if a little slower to get going.
There is some overlap, it’s true, but it’s largely superficial. Both series begin with the mysterious disappearance of a boy and both have a 1980s setting. In the case of Dark, which opens with a quote from Albert Einstein and a gravelly voiceover about the flexible nature of time, this is only half the story, which spans 1986 and the near-future, 2019.
Stranger Things is swaddled in lovingly nostalgic references to the work of Steven Spielberg, Stephen King and John Carpenter. Dark, on the other hand, is suffused with the bleak, chilly aesthetic of French head-scratcher The Returned, but so far without the overbearing pretentiousness that eventually drove some of us away from that series.
There’s also a whiff of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks – the original, that is, not the unwatchable revival – about the location: a dreary fictional town called Winden, a place awash with secrets and lies (the first two episodes are actually called ‘Secrets’ and ‘Lies’).
Teenager Jonas (Louis Hoffman) returns to school two months after the suicide of his father to find things have changed. His sweetheart is now with his best friend, while his mother (Maja Schone) is having an affair with the local police chief, Ulrich (Oliver Masucci), who is married to the school principal.
What is occupying the minds of the locals, however, is the mysterious disappearance two weeks before of a teenager called Erik (Paul Radom), who happens to be the school drug dealer.
Horrible history is repeating itself. Thirty-three years earlier, Ulrich’s younger brother went missing and was never found.
Jonas and his pals go in search of Erik’s stash of weed, which he keeps hidden in the local caves. They’re assailed by some kind of supernatural presence lurking inside and flee. Ulrich’s youngest son, Mikkel (Daan Lennard Liebrenz), falls behind and then he too disappears.
It is revealed early on that the boys have somehow been transported to the past. Erik is being held captive in a mock-up bedroom by a hooded man who seems to be performing some kind of painful experiment on him.
It’s questionable which is more distressing, this or the hideous 80s Europop blasting from a television.
Mikkel finds himself wandering around the Winden of 1986, where he encounters his future parents and the town’s other inhabitants.
Back in 2019, the town is in the grip of strange phenomena. Lights flicker and flash and sheep and birds drop dead, the latter falling from the sky like a biblical plague.
The body of yet another boy, who nobody recognises, is discovered in the creepy woods surrounding Winden. His eyes have been burned out and his eardrums have burst. A 1980s Walkman lies beside him.
A nameless stranger (Andreas Pietschmann) arrives in town and books into the local hotel, which is struggling to attract business because nobody wants to holiday in a town with a history of disappearing children.
He plasters the walls with drawings and newspaper clippings, one of which is headlined “Where is Erik?”. He crosses out the Where and writes When. He has with him a strange contraption, some kind of clockwork device (a time machine?) that also shows up in the 80s scenes.
What does all this have to do with the secretive nuclear power plant that towers over the town, or the sealed letter Jonas’ dad left behind, with an instruction not to open it before a specific day and time?
Dark is a delicious, time-bending, mind-messing puzzle that’s likely to provoke as many theories about what is going on as Lost once did.
The number 33 is significant. The disappearances were 33 years apart. The number of sheep found dead in a field (like the mystery boy, their eardrums burst) is 33. A character quotes The Gospel of Mark, 13:33.
Dark doesn’t have the nostalgia hook of Stranger Things, and so may not have the same broad appeal, but it’s every bit as gripping and arguably spookier.
All ten episodes are now available on Netflix.