In an age over-saturated with slick American teen drama series with a supernatural theme – many still characterised by the enduring influence of BUFFY and all of them hoping to be as long running as SUPERNATURAL – HEARTLESS is a distinctively Danish take on the form. Played commendably straight and without the smart-arse, self-aware humour that tends to dominate its U.S. equivalents, it’s an absorbing, if sometimes ponderous, eight-episode serial that has scope for further seasons.
In the early going of episode one, we witness photogenic teen twins Sofie (Julie Zangenberg) and Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen) luring and feeding in an almost vampiric fashion from an unfortunate young man in a nightclub who, as a result of their necessary act, promptly bursts into flames. The siblings have to feed on the life force of other people in order to survive and fatal consequences result if their feeding reaches a certain level. Sebastian, the more sensitive of the duo, wrestles with his own conscience of their activities, and together the twins set out to find out who and what they really are. They revisit the orphanage from which they originally ran away as infants, and discover that their mother attended an ultra-strict, rural boarding school. Joining as second year students, they learn about the dark history of the school itself – with the sadistic modern hierarchy carrying on old traditions of persecution and torture - and its inextricable links to their own bloodline.
Shot in muted tones and colours with the central school permanently enshrouded by mist, HEARTLESS is an atmospheric series built around a premise that inevitably echoes significant earlier American genre works. Sebastian (who tortuously reins in his need to feed wherever possible) gets the come-on from various girls at the school but his perfectly normal lustiness blurs with the unavoidable needs of his monstrous self when aroused, a la CAT PEOPLE. (The notion of a tortured, handsome male lead unable to fulfil romantic relationships due to the threat he poses, is of course, a throwback to BUFFY and ANGEL). The concept of family members with a desperate compulsion to feed on humans and a peculiarly incestuous relationship with each other has echoes of Stephen King’s far sillier SLEEPWALKERS. There are also CARRIE-inspired sub-plots involving the telekinetic powers of key secondary characters.
It could very easily be reincarnated as a generic, slick U.S. series, but the execution here is very Scandinavian. The tone is sombre and understated, with an underlying erotic charge and a real effort to minimise FX and melodrama in favour of a realistic approach to the potentially outlandish material. The backstory, including flashbacks to 17th century witch-hunts linked to the school principal’s three daughters, is effectively integrated into the contemporary narrative, and the performances are strong all round: the two leads are striking. For those that crave such things, there are occasional intrusions of predictably bad CGI fire and some fleeting, gratuitous shower-room nudity, but HEARTLESS has a beguiling style of its own, even when retreading age-old plot threads like the old “Only love can break the curse…” chestnut that we have seen in sundry earlier genre projects.
INTERVIEWS, FILM, BLU-RAY, DVD AND BOOK REVIEWS
DVD REVIEW – 400 DAYS – ***
Directed by Matt Osterman. Starring Brandon Routh, Dane Cook, Caity Lotz, Ben Feldman, Tom Cavanagh. USA 2015. 91 mins Certificate: 15
Released by Vertigo Releasing Cinema / Video On Demand on August 19th 2016
Although it never fulfils its substantial initial promise, 400 DAYS is a beguiling attempt at a feature length psychological horror story in the vein of some of the best old TWILIGHT ZONE episodes.
“Kepler Industries” have engineered a unique way of testing the psychological effects of deep space travel on a small group of volunteers. They will spend 400 days in a realistic, underground space capsule that has been designed to simulate the experience of a genuine space mission. The applicants themselves, led by Captain Brandon Routh, see it as the quickest way they can get their ticket punched for the real thing. THE PACT’s Caity Lotz is on board to provide regular psychiatric evaluations, but soon the impact of the extended segregation takes its toll. The capsule begins violently and inexplicably shaking, while the loss of power amplifies the increasing psychological fragility of the group. One of them rapidly becomes more withdrawn, losing grip on reality, while Routh’s own emotional baggage makes him vulnerable for the escalating disorientation.
In addition to the ever-lasting debt owed to Rod Serling’s work, 400 DAYS lures us down an elusive, familiar path while invoking memories of memorable earlier genre films like EVENT HORIZON (which had more visceral horrors) and SUNSHINE (which achieved more visual and emotional impact). The sense of an extended, surrealistic mystery tracking its way to a frustrating conclusion offers potent echoes of TV’s LOST, particularly with the myriad potential explanations suggested throughout about the truth behind the protagonists’ plight. Is everything we are seeing simply part of the elaborate simulation? Have they somehow ended up on another planet? Is it some kind of drug-induced collective hallucination? Inevitably, one key character ponders aloud, “Maybe we’re dead?!”
Alas, the eventual pay-off is weak and non-committal and the characterisations are largely one note. Routh and Lotz are charismatic enough on screen to make the most of the script’s failings, but (for the record) Dane Cook should never be cast in any role designed to elicit at least a modicum of empathy. Unreliant on visual FX and sustaining an eerie ambience, 400 DAYS nonetheless succeeds in delivering some atmospheric visuals, notably a creepy incarnation of The Diner At (What Might Be) The End of the World.