Spain, 1992: A pall hangs over the sleepy seaside town of Almanzora de la Vega following the disappearance of three teenage girls at a nightclub called Paradise – “Paraiso” in Spanish. While Civil Guard agent Paula Costa (Macarena García of Blancaneves) hits dead ends and Mario (Iñaki Ardanaz), father of the missing Sandra (Júlia Frigola) starts delving into conspiracy theories, Sandra’s teenage brother, Javi (Pau Gimeno) starts digging into the mystery himself.
Along with best friends Quino (León Martínez) and Alvaro (Cristian López), and with school bully Zeta (Héctor Gozalbo) inadvertently tagging along, he breaks into the now-shuttered Paraiso to look for clues, discovering a hidden tunnel under the gaudy nightspot. But when a fire breaks out – spoiler alert! – all but one of them die. But that’s not the end of the story, it’s the beginning - now incorporeal ghosts – and with Alvaro on a respirator – Javi, Quino, and Zeta must solve Sandra’s disappearance from the afterlife, in the process uncovering an even greater mystery.
So, perhaps “Stranger Things meets Ghost” is the best tagline to throw at Paraiso, with motes of IT and even The Goonies flavouring the proceedings. Indeed, the Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore blockbuster gets namechecked by the media-savvy kids in this seven-part series, but this is no nostalgic wallow in metaxtextuality. While Javi is thrilled to get a Gameboy for his birthday and at one point Paula notes that Terminator 2 is due out in a couple of months, Paraiso is no exercise in memberberry box-ticking. It’s more Stephen King than Steven Spielberg, and there’s an ominous, sombre mood permeating the proceedings. Paraiso doesn’t just remember the fun things about its period setting, or indeed adolescence itself, but also the traumas of youth. Zeta has an abusive stepfather, while Javi is alienated from his own grieving dad. The town itself seems mortally wounded by the tragedy of the girls’ disappearance in a way that’s reminiscent of Atom Egoyan’s 1997 film, The Sweet Hereafter (the fact that Quino is disabled and uses a wheelchair like Sarah Polley’s character in The Sweet Hereafter makes me suspect this is not a coincidence).
All of which makes Paraiso sound like a bit of a dirge, but this is not the case – it just lacks the sentimentality that’s all too common in American shows. Javi and the gang feel like real kids; they swear and drink and have recognisable experiences and emotions. The performances are great across the board, particularly Gimeno as the sensitive Javi and Gozalbo as the wounded, angry Zeta.
But what we’re really here for is the horror, right? For all that is has a high concept – “dead kids solve their own murder” is a heck of an elevator pitch – Paraiso doles out its supernatural elements sparingly, but enticingly. What caused a flock of seagulls to kamikaze dive into the town lighthouse in the opening scene? How is it that the missing girls have been sighted in Ireland of all places? Crucially, what’s the story with out-of-town federal investigator Zhou (a scene-stealing Yoon C. Joyce), who can survive a shotgun blast to the head and seems to have a direct connection to the titular nightclub?
Most will be revealed in good time, but not all – a second season of Paraiso is already in the works, so some enigmas must remain unsolved. For now, if you’re a fan of small town mysteries, supernatural drama, and conspiratorial horror, Paraiso is going to be one of your favourite discoveries of the year.
Paraiso is streaming at SBS On Demand from Boxing Day.