DOUR AND GRIM, the Red Riding trilogy is noteworthy more for its format than anything else: three films, each made by a different director, and each spanning a different time period in Northern England. Based on a series of four novels by David Peace—which, in turn, were inspired by actual events—Red Riding: 1974, Red Riding: 1980, and Red Riding: 1983 share characters and settings, themes and plot threads—yet all stand on their own as effective crime dramas. Even if the trilogy (which plays over the coming weeks at the Living Room Theaters) never quite reaches the emotional resonance one would hope for, and even if, by its final installment, it's reached a melodramatic pitch, it's nevertheless well worth experiencing.

Originally made for British television—and currently available On Demand, if you're not interested in waiting a few weeks to get the whole story—each of these films feels different, and while some of the trappings remain constant, the leads of each film change. In Julian Jarrold's stylish, evocative 1974, the strongest of the lot, we follow a naïve reporter (Andrew Garfield); in James Marsh's straightforward procedural 1980, Paddy Considine plays a dedicated detective; in Anand Tucker's obvious, theatrical 1983, our time is split between a police officer (David Morrissey) and a lawyer (Mark Addy). Hanging over these men—and their connected women, not to mention countless others in the films' sprawling casts—is death: Specifically, the murders of the Yorkshire Ripper, a serial killer who terrorizes the region. And that's not all: There is torture, both physical and mental; there are other murders and other crimes; there are abducted children and there are corrupt cops. If you've ever wanted to visit England, chances are you won't want to after seeing the Red Riding films.

Thankfully, what keeps the trilogy from devolving into sordid, CSI-style exploitation is the fact that each film is as focused on the characters as on the crimes. Strongly reminiscent of David Fincher's depressingly underrated Zodiac (2007), the trilogy is intent on capturing the people, the mood, and the ephemera of its settings. Shot with various film stocks and styles, each film is distinctly gorgeous in a gray, weary way, and the overriding sense is of a society barely holding itself together.

Red Riding is filled with desperate characters, with rotten ones, with sad and lonely and murderous ones, and the cumulative effect they have is overwhelming. There's a sense of ugliness and terror, true, but also—and this can't help but trump the films' individual stories—a sense of the grandness of a story that's larger than any single person or any single film. While the films' emotional impact never quite supercedes their format, the trilogy is, unquestionably, one hell of an accomplishment.