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.
DVD REVIEW – ABANDONED DEAD – **
Directed by Mark W Curran. Starring Sarah Nicklin, Carlos Ramirez, Judith O'Dea. Horror, USA, 74 mins, cert 15.
Released on DVD in the UK by Left on the 27th February, 2017.
One of the things you learn if you watch enough low budget horror movies is that making a film creepy and unsettling can cost absolutely no money at all. Other aspects of film production will cost: better actors, a halfway decent music soundtrack, a cinematographer who knows one end of a camera from another, optical or prosthetic effects work. But darkness, the creepiest and potentially scariest thing there is, is free. Doors open when they shouldn't be open, are free. Mysterious thuds and cries are free. Inanimate objects suddenly moving, or appearing where they shouldn't, are free. Suddenly ringing telephones are free. There is a lot of scope for being absolutely terrifying without spending much money.
The best and most effective moments of·ABANDONED DEAD·are those simple moments: noises off and things not being in the right place. Rachel (Sarah Nicklin) is a security guard reluctantly coerced into a night shift at an addiction clinic where odd noises are common (it's supposedly an old building, though it clearly isn't) and Dr Mayfield's office at the far end of the hall is to remain locked. But Rachel has fears and past traumas of her own, and the darkness and the unexplained occurrences (a skinned cat, a creepy handyman, weird voices on the phone) do nothing to calm her down.... All of that's solid enough, but intercut with this is a cop (Carlos Ramirez) trying to crack a triple murder case. He's clearly the only cop in town as he never sees or speaks to anyone else and all his scenes are burdened with annoying endless voiceover, like he's in a 1940s noir. Might his cases have something to do with the addiction clinic? What is Dr Mayfield up to?
Eventually we find out, as ABANDONED DEAD segues into well-trodden torture thriller territory with Rachel tied up and forced to listen to a ranting maniac before breaking free and... And then it twists again for an ending that's as annoying as it is lame, where nothing is what you thought it was and it doesn't make sense any more. Still, it does boast a supporting appearance from Judith O'Dea, most famous for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD nearly half a century ago (and is apparently reprising the role in an unofficial sequel).
The ending of ABANDONED DEAD really does kill it stone dead, and it's a pity as the film managed a few genuine chills in its earlier sections with the girl alone in the darkened clinic and (at least at that point) something sinister apparently out to get her. But its multiple shifts into other styles defuse any tension that had built up, and it needed a better way of tying the various threads together. If that meant more money being spent on it to bring a few other characters into play to give it some depth, so be it.