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"Thy Kingdom Come," "Death's Kingdom," "Goodbye Kiss," "The West Side Of Midnight," "Hook's Kingdom," "The Young And The Headless," "Black Noise," "Heartless," "Butterfingers," "The Passion Of Reverend Jimmy," "Seizure Day," "Shoulda Stood In Bed," "Finale"
by Walter Chaw The sort of program you want other people to see in the same way you want someone else to smell how spoiled the milk is, the 13-part, 10-hour, Stephen King-scripted adaptation of Lars Von Trier's brilliant Danish miniseries "Riget" (a.k.a. "The Kingdom") is only as bloated, ridiculous, and incompetent as the rest of the master of terror's last decade of work. Auto-cannibalistic like his protagonist in "Survivor Type" and pitched as a cross between "E.R." and, one presumes, the TV version of King's "The Shining" (while playing like a community theatre rendition of "The Singing Detective"), "Kingdom Hospital" is awkward at best and eye-clawing hokum at its worst. There's no other way to describe a talking CGI anteater called "Antubis" (after the Egyptian god of death Annubis, I'm thinking) that fights a Depression-era vampire in the bowels of the titular place of healing. A spooky little girl à la The Shining (played by a terrible kid actor à la Danny from Kubrick's The Shining) describes him this way: "He eats disease, he likes to be scratched behind the ears. He's horrible. Beautiful." Yep.
The worst aspect of this whole mess, which takes the basic plots and characters from Von Trier's creepy soaper and gives them that undeniable King "ayup," is the author's obsession with his own hit-and-run, manifesting itself in "Kingdom Hospital"'s central artist-clobbered-by-fate. Peter Rickman (Jack Coleman) is a Great Painter splattered across a wooded interstate one fine day by a pill-popping loser in a van (Ryan Robbins). (Newspaper reports of King's accident several years ago spoil this particular plotline down to the ersatz suicide staged by said hit-and-runner.) Unable to move ("Autopsy Room Four") but suddenly able to hear animals, see ghosts, and crack wise about people with open flies needing hot-dog vendor licenses, Peter becomes a little like the centre around which the events at the haunted Kingdom hospital revolve. His doctor is the brilliant but iconoclastic neurosurgeon Dr. Hook (Andrew McCarthy), whose nemesis is evil neurosurgeon Dr. Stegman (Bruce Davison). Their boss is demented Dr. Jesse James (Ed Begley Jr., parodying his own turn in "St. Elsewhere"), and their receptionist is a German who revels in saying "schhhtat!"--but the real idiot is Eleanor Druse (Diane Ladd), a psychic hypochondriac desperate to uncover the identity of a little ghost girl (Jodelle Ferland) who died in a mill fire that happened long ago on the--wait for it--very site of Kingdom Hospital! Then there's the Antubis at war with the vampire ghost dude (Kett Turton) over...what? And why? Who knows? Who cares?
People familiar with King can play the same game that King's playing with "Kingdom Hospital". The obvious, writer-specific references include the hero getting hit by a car (Dreamcatcher); recurring rock oldies on spontaneously-playing radios (Christine); evil ravens (The Stand); ghost girls, elevators, and temporal schisms (The Shining); euthanasia drama ("The Woman in the Room"); and the sudden tantric speaking in rhyme (IT). More points awarded for spotting the sources for a narrator convalescing amongst quirky characters whilst fantasizing adventures and musical numbers (Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective"), headless hijinks (Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator), a dog carrying around human parts (Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo), and the senseless quotation of a Wallace Stevens poem. Meanwhile, there are Easter eggs in the form of a guy in a waiting area reading King's Bag of Bones, Peter's wife reading King's Misery, Wayne Newton (!) reading "Kingdom Hospital" contributor Richard Dooling's White Man's Grave, a radio and television announcer comparing something to a "Stephen King horror story," a cameo from King himself, a Bill Buckner doppelgänger (Red Sox fanaticism = The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and that new one King co-authored with Stewart O'Nan about the Sox's World Series run), and so on and so forth until there comes the uncomfortable moment when you're confronted with the fact that not only are you masturbating, but King is also whispering urgently in your ear as you're doing it.
The only pursuit in "Kingdom Hospital" for the erudite viewer and for King himself is onanistic--a particular form of self-abuse allegedly pleasurable but for in this context, where it's a little sad and a lot tedious. Never scary (unless you find anteaters threatening) and funded and advertised in part by King's expansive personal coffers, the miniseries is making a play at surrealism and instead becomes mired in layers of meaningless visual pretense blunted by its nitwit dialogue. Well into the sixth hour, there are finally some good old-fashioned scares, but even these are rounded off by veteran TV director Craig R. Baxley's tepid, too-slick progression into the horror movie equivalent of bad softcore porn. Everything's simulated in "Kingdom Hospital"--it's a facsimile so unconvincing that scenes which should be grotesque (a brain surgery patient sits up mid-procedure) play whimsical while moments that should elicit pathos inspire the studied indifference of people sitting for a supernatural-tinged miniseries, only to find themselves in a hostage situation. To say that the credit sequence (courtesy Digital Kitchen) is the best thing this exercise has going for it (it's like a Dave McKean painting animated to a Dido-esque trip-hop number from Ivy--the opening of "Roswell" grafted onto the opening of "Six Feet Under", in other words) is dire warning again, considering the project in question is six-hundred precious, irreclaimable minutes of hummingbird-flitting between slapstick whimsy and sterile gore. "Scrubs" does it better, with a fraction of the brain damage.
Because no bad deed goes unpunished by a commemorative box set, "Kingdom Hospital: The Entire Series" arrives on DVD in a spit-polished, four-disc package from Columbia TriStar. Each episode is preserved in a dark yet fabulous 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer boasting of fidelity to the show's muted palette, the common aesthetic choice of limited artists looking to approximate style. Whatever the series' lack of atmosphere and frights, almost all the blame lies at the feet of its super-glossy presentation. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is likewise consistently impressive, the echoing laughter of the subterranean segments flexing agreeable in the rear channels like a green yew bow. Antubis's growling and snuffling, especially, give the subwoofer a nice workout, just in case you thought I was kidding about that whole talking anteater thing.
The first and fourth platters house the special features. We open with a feature-length yakker over the two-hour premiere teaming King, Baxley, executive producer Mark Carliner, and F/X supervisor James Tichenor. Lots of chitchatting about how the project got off the ground, Von Trier's alleged affinity for King and affection for this travesty, and King going on as if he knew the ins and outs of feature-filmmaking constitute the bulk of the track's unintentional mirth. Even with four commentators there's a lot of dead air, and King's total ignorance of how special effects are done seems disingenuous. The most interesting portion of the commentary involves an anecdote in which King's exasperated wife asks him how many times he's going to relive his accident in his work and King replying "until it's behind me." Judging by how he discusses the accident scene in the flick, erstwhile fans, rejoice: it's not behind him.
"Inside the Walls: The Making of 'Kingdom Hospital'" (15 mins.) opens with the not-brilliant Baxley bite: "How do you explain 'Kingdom Hospital'? It's like explaining Stephen King!" Don't tempt me to try. Inside, various cast members offer their brief analyses of what they think the show is ("A dark comedy!" "'E.R.' on hash!") and King tells a story of filming "The Shining" miniseries in Boulder when he wandered into a video store (likely Video Station, the only video store worth a shit in Colorado), rented Von Trier's original, and immediately saw something he wanted to dumb-ify for American audiences. Super-duper. More, King mentions how he recruited National Book Award-nominee Dooling to sully his good name on this project, and the whole deal unspools like your typical B-roll-flavoured tongue bath. "Patients and Doctors: The Cast of 'Kingdom Hospital'" (15 mins.) is more of the same: poor Andrew McCarthy goes on for a bit about how wild and crazy everybody is--and King offers that he has no favourite character because, as the father, he can't play favourites amongst his children.
In "Designing 'Kingdom Hospital': A Tour" (7 mins.), producer Thomas Brodek recalls the construction of the sets in Burnaby, BC (home of Joe Sakic and maybe the most unfriendly grocer I've ever met) and people who won't cross against the light no matter if it's 3AM at a deserted intersection. As for the rest of the piece, turns out that not one facet of shopping for surgical gowns interests me. (David Cronenberg pretty much closed the topic in my mind upon outfitting his Mantle Brothers in bright red.) "The Magic of Antubis" (8 mins.) rounds out the festivities with a super-ridiculous bit on Puff the Magic Echidna toplined by the increasingly stupid-seeming Baxley, offering here that as a completely digital creature, Antubis is like Gollum. I guess that means he's also like Jar-Jar Binks and that airplane Clint Eastwood flew in Firefox. Digital Effects Supervisor Craig Van Dem Biggelaar gives the usual two-step on storyboarding, modelling, mapping, and animating; he also tells us that, technically, Antibus is not an anteater, but an anteater crossed with a monster. Trailers for "Kingdom Hospital", "Seinfeld", Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid, Asylum of the Damned, and Boa Vs. Python finish off the video-based supplements; King's self-penned primer to the series fills up a leaflet inside one of the keepcases.