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.
FILM REVIEW – 47 METRES DOWN ****
Directed by Johannes Roberts. Starring Claire Holt, Mandy Moore, Matthew Modine. Thriller, USA, 89 mins, cert 15.
Released in cinemas in the UK by Entertainment One on the 26th July, 2017.
"You go inside the cage.... cage goes in the water.... you go in the water.... shark's in the water." It's surely incredibly difficult to make a film featuring an anti-shark cage and not bringing to mind any one of dozens of iconic moments from JAWS. This frankly isn't in that league - it doesn't have any of JAWS' snappy humour and the score (by the annoyingly uncapitalised tomandandy) is so far away from John Williams it's not in the same ocean - but on the spectrum of shark movies it's up there with THE SHALLOWS as one of the best recent examples.
To be honest 47 METRES DOWN is not exclusively a shark movie: our heroines have far more problems than a couple of Great Whites cruising around for nibbles. Holidaying in Mexico, sisters Kate and Lisa (Claire Holt and Mandy Moore) decide to go out and watch sharks from the safety of a metal cage. It's obviously a bad idea: Lisa has never been scuba diving before, the captain (Matthew Modine, who's surprisingly given almost nothing to do) immediately strikes you as deeply untrustworthy, and the boat's chains and winching mechanisms are rusted through, but they do it anyway. So it's hardly a surprise that rather than dangling around at a mere five metres, the line snaps and they end up plummeting to the sea bed...
This is a pretty good suspenseful nail- (and everything else-) biter that keeps raising the stakes: they've only got a limited air supply AND the winch has crashed onto the top of the cage AND they're slightly too far out of radio range from the ship, which might no longer even be there. In the dark. And, of course, there are sharks in the water. Pretty much the entire movie takes place underwater: there's no cutting back to the ship or dry land, so we're with the two girls almost all the time. Their backstories - one's adventurous and thrill-seeking, one's more timid and coming out of an unhappy breakup - are efficiently enough sketched in and, apart from a bit of "this is awesome!" squealing before the bad stuff kicks in, they're never actively annoying.
Wisely, 47 METRES DOWN plays it entirely straight and never descends to injokes or geeky movie references, and the shark appearances are entirely convincing (again, see The Shallows, as opposed to the shoddy CGI idiocies of the SHARKNADO variety), partly because for a lot of the time they're an malevolent threat in the darkness. Sure, there's an "oh, come on!" plot development in the final stretch that felt cheap (though, to be fair, it was foreshadowed in the dialogue earlier) and lowered the tension noticeably but it didn't bother me, or those immediately around me, as much as it has apparently annoyed others. The end result is Johannes Roberts' most enjoyable film thus far (and I generally liked STORAGE 24 and THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DOOR): the tension is cranked up at a steady pace and the jump moments are nicely timed. Also, kudos for not using METERS in the title for the UK release.