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 – 68 KILL ****
Directed by Trent Haaga. Starring Matthew Gray Gubler, AnnaLynne McCord, Alisha Boe, Eric Podnar, Lucy Faust, Alisha Boe. Crime/Comedy, USA, 92 mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on DVD and Digital Download by StudioCanal on 27th November 2017.
Chip (Matthew Gray Gubler – EXCISION) is a young man with an eye for the ladies and his latest girlfriend is the incredibly sexy Liza (AnnaLynne McCord – EXCISION/TRANSPORTER 2), a white trash hooker with a psychotic brother and a plan to rob her sugar daddy of the $68,000 cash he keeps in his safe. Of course, Chip goes along with the plan as he’ll do anything for Liza and he thinks it’ll just be a simple robbery where nobody gets hurt but Liza gets bloodthirsty and starts killing everyone who crosses her path, and that is just the beginning of Chip’s problems as they make it away with the money, a hostage and Liza’s mind becoming increasingly unstable.
KILLJOY actor Trent Haaga directs 68 KILL very much in the vein of someone who has watched a few Rob Zombie movies, and rather than being a negative thing that actually lends itself to the material. Whereas Zombie’s dialogue often feels forced onto characters who you know wouldn’t talk like that, Haaga’s screenplay feels more natural for the characters – for the most part anyway – despite the increasingly absurd situations they find themselves in and it also helps that the two main leads both turn in bang-on performances that do the writing justice. And while the star of the show is definitely AnnaLynne McCord, who exudes femme fatale cool and danger, the film is really carried by Matthew Gray Gubler as he appears in nearly every scene and does serious to goofy and back again with apparent ease, even if the material doesn’t always call for it, and despite there being a slight lag in the middle when circumstances dictate that the focus of Chip’s attentions change from Liza to another sassy beauty with a cunning plan all of her own, the actor remains an energetic presence and Chip becomes a more rounded character for it.
However, despite the talent that has gone into delivering the script and the somewhat polished look of the film 68 KILL is a grindhouse movie at its blackened heart and Trent Haaga isn’t shy about spraying the camera with blood and showing of plenty of naked flesh, although you don’t come away from it feeling as grubby as you would if Rob Zombie had been directing. Again, not necessarily a bad thing as many of the grindhouse homages that have come out in the wake of the Tarantino/Rodriguez GRINDHOUSE collaboration a decade ago have been nothing more than excuses for filmmakers to throw out countless scenes of sex and violence – often combined – with little-to-no context or sense of occasion. At least here Haaga is trying to tell a story with some raw-edged thrills but with a little bit of restraint, letting his actors do what is required whilst giving you just enough of what we watch these types of movies for without going too far and costing the film its edge.
With elements of NATURAL BORN KILLERS and a final act that gives more than a passing nod to the motel scene in THE DEVIL’S REJECTS – including introducing a character that tries (and fails) to emulate Bill Moseley's Otis B. Driftwood - what 68 KILL lacks in originality it makes up for in entertainment value with excellent performances, a tight(ish) script and plenty of sex and violence but with a more humorous touch to it than the films it is riffing from, giving it enough gas in the tank to withstand repeated viewings without losing any of its appeal.