Luther creator, author and screenwriter Neil Cross’ new show The Sister lies somewhere at the heart of the Venn diagram overlap between crime thriller and gothic horror. Based on his novel Burial, but with added non-linear complexity, there’s a body in the woods, but we’re not quite sure why.
We know that everyman Nathan, played by disarmingly likeable Years and Years star Russell Tovey, has something to do with it. But is he a murderer? Disturbingly, he’s married to real estate agent Holly (Amrita Acharia, Game of Thrones), whose sister Elise (Simone Ashley, Sex Education) went missing seven years ago. And then there’s a knock on the door in the middle of a stormy night, revealing the positively Dickensian Bob, a sneering, lank-haired paranormal investigator (Bertie Carvel, Baghdad Central) bearing a dark secret. Sometimes the dead aren’t so silent.
Fans of Big Little Lies’ piecemeal reveal of exactly who is covering up what will be riveted by this four-part drama written by the British Cross that revels in his obsessions. “Temperamentally, aesthetically and, to some extent, philosophically, I’m just an old goth,” he chuckles. That’s borne out by the standard-issue black garb he wears as we chat on Zoom. “I was born a goth, and there’s something about that crossover that has always appealed to me, and I suspect always will.”
It’s there at the chilling core of Luther. Cross notes the hit Idris Elba-led show once prompted former BBC exec Ben Stephenson to ask him of the gritty London-set serial killer series, “Do you realise that you’ve managed to smuggle a horror show onto primetime?”
Eerily stylish, The Sister is a fitting follow-up that turns the screw with aching suspense, as Nina Toussaint-White’s detective begins to spy a chink in the armour of old alibis. One-part procedural, there’s also a cold wind rustling the veil between life and death, like Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca orEmily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.
Some of the show’s creepiest scenes involve Tovey standing all alone in his darkened home, terrorised by bumps in the night. “I love how the spectral and the numinous and the questions we have about the fundamental nature of underlying reality could intersect with having cornflakes, making a cup of tea and going to work,” Cross says of the subverted mundanity of Nathan and Molly planning kids together while the spectre of her sister’s disappearance hovers over all.
It’s a mood he learned from the best, Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting, based on the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House – shining proof that less is more in horror. “It was like having the carpet of reality dragged away from under my feet,” Cross says of its malignant atmosphere. “Utterly terrifying.”
Nightmares inform the central mystery of The Sister. One night back in the ’80s, full of cheap cider, Cross cut through dark woods to get back to his Bristol council estate. He woke up disturbed the next morning with what he was convinced was a memory, not a dream, of knifing an old homeless man to death. So much so that he searched his clothes for traces of blood. That primal fear set in motion a career mining precisely this sort of dread. But how much of crime writing is nightmare-channelling, and how much is perverse wish-fulfilment? “The truth of it is that I am distractingly normal,” Cross laughs. “I’m scared of everything. And that’s great, because I’ve built a career on it.”
Tovey’s normality helps sell our complicity in Nathan’s possible crime. “It’s magical casting,” Cross agrees. “Russell’s able to carry off all those levels in every moment. It just feels like proper human complexity.”
Acharia similarly impressed Cross, to the point that he renamed the series not for the missing sibling, but the one left behind. “She’s our secret weapon. I’m not very good at titles, but one of the ways to name something, and I know this sounds crass, is fundamentally to ask, ‘what is it about?’ So in that context, Jaws is the best title of all time, or Raiders of the Lost Ark. What’s at stake? And Amrita was so good, that’s why it became The Sister.”
There’s something glorious about his female characters that reminds me of Australian gender and film theory authority Barbara Creed’s idea of the monstrous feminine. Whether it’s the triangle of women dead or alive who may yet bring the whole house down in The Sister, or the chaos agent that is Ruth Wilson’s fabulously wicked Alice taunting Elba in Luther. “Do you know, I’ve never really thought about it that way, and I spent a lot of lockdown discussing the monstrous feminine with my older son, who’s now at university. But people love Alice. They shouldn’t at all, but what’s really attractive about people like her, or Hannibal Lecter, is not the crimes they commit. That’s secondary. It’s the fact that they don’t feel bad about it. They enjoy their lives.”
That fascinates Cross, and his millions of fans. Again, he insists these creations far exceed his reality. “I’m such a bundle of neuroses, anxieties and pounding, constant self-hatred, that the idea of living a life where you can just do anything you feel like doing and never feel bad about it, that’s what appeals to me.”
We’re lucky he unloads all that anxiety on the page, and that there’s no body buried in those Bristol woods. Probably.
The Sister airs weekly on SBS from 9.30pm Wednesday 2 December. Episodes arrive at SBS On Demand the same day they go to air. Here is episode 1:
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