Warning: contains spoilers for Luther Series 5.
There are many things that set Luther apart from the plethora of UK prime-time detective shows, but two things, in particular, stand out: shock value, and its willingness to embrace proper horror.
While Luther’s series arcs—his run-ins with other police departments, his bitter feud with gangster George Cornelius (Patrick Malahide), and his twisted relationship with nemesis Alice (Ruth Wilson), to name a few—offer a deep dive into the character and psyche of Idris Elba’s antiheroic cop, it’s the killer-of-the-week plots that really up the fear factor.
Take series two’s Cameron Pell (Lee Ingleby), for example: a sadistic art student turned serial killer who wears a Mr Punch puppet mask and terrorises the streets of London with his trusty machete in the vein of notorious Victorian bogeyman, Spring-Heeled Jack. Or series three baddie Paul Ellis (Kevin Fuller), a fetishistic home-invader who robbed millions of viewers of a good night’s sleep after his terrifying under-the-bed antics. Neither would have seemed out of place in even the darkest Hollywood spine-chiller.
But it was series five that fully leaned into slasher-movie territory with the introduction of the psychotic Jeremy Lake (Enzo Cilenti)—and a scene that would spook even the most hardcore of horror fans.
Lake is John Luther’s most odious adversary so far: a renowned heart surgeon with a smug superiority complex who moonlights as a masochistic serial killer. Struggling to contain his murderous urges, he spends his spare time stalking, kidnapping and butchering his victims under the watchful eye of his psychologist wife, Vivian (Hermione Norris)—a dominating force who indulges his sinister hobby and covers up his crimes.
In the fifth series’ first episode, we see Lake claiming an unfortunate victim on board an iconic London institution: a double-decker red bus. It’s not a long scene, but it really showcases how Luther makes a virtue of its genre stylings—mostly, by being really bloody scary.
Standing in the shadow of the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, East London at night, a woman boards the No. 15 bus. She takes a seat on the top deck, surrounded by the usual ragtag bunch of late-night commuters and boozed-up revellers. There’s an eerie silence, a stripped-back soundtrack of engine noises, door mechanisms and background chatter, as her journey is documented in almost mundane detail. Her initial feelings of unease give way as tiredness and familiarity set in. Stop by stop, her fellow passengers alight until she’s travelling solo – or so she thinks…
Suddenly, silently, at the back of the bus, a face pops up. The woman looks around, but there’s no one there. In an excruciatingly tense minute of television, the killer—later revealed as Lake, here kitted out in a freakish doll-like mask made somehow creepier by an LED-lit hoodie—carefully crawls down the aisle towards her, before slowly getting up to reveal himself. Then, the point of view cuts to another woman—also alone—on a bus going in the opposite direction, who looks on in horror as the killer strikes with a knife to the throat.
There’s no jump scare here—just an unbearable tension that, like all good scary movies, mines its horror from an unspeakable act taking place in an otherwise mundane, everyday setting. The three-minute sequence terrified viewers, with many taking to social media to declare they were done with night buses. In a sign of how much it crept into the nation’s consciousness, it even featured on that week’s Gogglebox.
Why? Well, most of us have travelled on a bus at some point in our lives—it can be an inherently unnerving experience at the best of times, let alone at night. In fact, Luther creator and writer Neil Cross has previously explained how the genesis of the show’s villains is rooted in his own anxiety. “People often express surprise that I am psychologically normal and well-adjusted,” he told Variety, “but that’s because I never write about what I want to do to other people; I always write about what I am scared other people will do to me.”
It’s often said that one of Luther’s major characters is London itself, with Elba declaring of the show’s setting: “The reason a city [like London] works is because there’s lots of shadows… [It has] that sort of Gotham-esque vibe.” And anyone who has lived in or visited London especially had reasons to be fearful as they watched this scene play out.
The show goes to great lengths to incorporate elements of the capital that aren’t always shown on screen, and to frame the action away from the recognisable, filmed-a-million-times landmarks. “The minute you enter into a picture postcard you are disconnected because you smell the contrivance,” as series five director Jamie Payne puts it.
London’s night buses provide an essential service, ferrying people across the city throughout the early hours and to parts that the tube can’t reach, but glamorous they are not. And, as anyone who has been on one can attest, there can definitely be times when you’ll want to keep your wits about you—a feeling that Cross definitely plays on here.
“[The show] loves celebrating the genre of it but if you disconnect it from the truth, then it doesn’t work as well,” Payne has said, explaining why Luther’s horror elements so successfully cut through to viewers. “What makes Neil’s writing so great is it is connected to our primal fear because it is something we can relate to. Neil encourages us to find the ordinary scene and make it extraordinary.”
For such a relatively small and low-key sequence, the night bus murder certainly packs a punch and became one of the highlights of the fifth series—as well as the show as a whole. It’s a testament to the cinematic tension that Payne brought to the scene—something he’ll be looking to recreate in the upcoming Luther movie, for which he’s returning to the director’s chair. And with Andy Serkis taking on the villain role, we could be in for even more terrifying onscreen nightmares.
Luther is currently available to stream on BBC iPlayer.