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► Katla is available to stream on Netflix.
The Icelandic volcano Katla, listed as active, last erupted violently in 1918, though stirrings have been observed since 1999. It’s overdue for the kind of volcanic event depicted in this miniseries, in which the mountain doesn’t generate pyroclastic flow but spews a huge ash column into the sky, to the inconvenience of the nearby town of Vik, Iceland’s southernmost community. The final episode comes up with some sort of science-fiction explanation for the supernatural-seeming phenomena associated with this imaginary eruption – but only in the vaguest way, akin to the evocation of A-bomb tests as rationale for all sorts of mutations and monsters in 1950s creature features.
The fascination of the drama is in the use of a fantastical premise to explore the tangled lives of a community, a mix of science-fiction and soap opera that harks back to Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass serials. The early episodes introduce unnatural visitors who somehow emerge, covered in ash, from the volcano. At first they seem to be ghosts or revenants, as in several recent series about the returning dead. A rescue worker and a vulcanologist react warily but with gratitude to the reappearances of a sister lost on the glacier a year ago and a young son who died in a suspect car accident. However, Gunhild (Aliette Opheim), a girl from Reykjavik who worked in Vik for a season 20 years earlier, seems to have been transported across time, which draws her rueful, very much alive older self to the town. This doppelganger reopens wounds from an old affair which has had long-lasting effects on two families. None of the reappearees are entirely right, though the most frightening – an angelic child sociopath – seems to be all too exactly what he was the first time around.
In an age of pandemic and global warming, real events cast a pall over Katla as surely as the volcano coats everything with ash and blots out the sun. Several recent horror-mystery dramas have used far-edge-of-the-world settings – the film 30 Days of Night (2007) and the 2015 TV dramas Trapped (another Icelandic small town mystery created by Baltasar Kormákur) and Fortitude – with a focus on people who remain even as nature tries to shift them from their homes. Here, the personal drama – how to deal with physical spectres from the past – takes place in a town full of shuttered houses and closed-down businesses, with swaddled, masked characters trudging through elements that grind them down as surely as any intrusion of the paranormal.