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 – a dark song ****
Directed by Liam Gavin, Starring: Catherine Walker, Steve Oram. Horror, Ireland, 2016, 100mins, Cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD & Digital Download on 14st August 2017 by Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment.
“...this is real stuff we’re playing with: real angels, real demons”
Three years after the murder of her 7 year old son, Sophia (Catherine Walker) enlists the services of an initially reluctant occultist, Solomon (Steve Oram) to conduct an all-consuming black magic ritual to summon her guardian angel. At first, Sophia makes out her reason is for unreciprocated romantic love, but when Solomon refuses (despite being offered £80K) for what he perceives as such a pitifully unworthy reason: “Abramelin procedure just to force love. It’s like getting Titian to decorate a cake”, Sophia opens up to explain about her son and tells Solomon it’s actually to hear her dead son’s voice again. This changes his mind, but firstly he asks Sophia to reassure him that this now is the truth: “as it’s important” and not being completely honest could have consequences for both of them.
Director/writer Liam Gavin’s debut feature is a powerful assured two-hander set mainly within the echoed corridors and sparsely furnished bare wood floor rooms of an isolated manor house. It chronicles an almost forensically detailed depiction of arcane preparation and practice - far removed from the usual throwaway mainstream montage depictions of Ouija boards or séance clichés - and is all the more compelling as a result. To this end, it is immeasurably assisted by the abrasive matter-of-factness of Steve (SIGHTSEERS) Oram’s acerbic occultist Solomon, a character almost lifted straight out of a Mike Leigh kitchen sink drama. Solomon is spiteful, condescending and viscously cruel at times, so you’d therefore imagine intensely dislikeable. However, writer/director Gavin sprinkles occasional hints of kindness and compassion on the character to occasionally dilute his often downright unpleasantness, and Oram brings out the subtleties and seemingly contradictory actions with an unfussy convincing efficiency.
Catherine Walker (Sophia) is superb as the grief and guilt-ridden mother who has had enough of counselling and her younger sister’s unwanted interventions and steels herself for what will prove to be six months of hellish endurance. Sophia’s arc is integral to the film, and Walker provides subtle nuance in essaying a character also seemingly hard to warm to, and her fully committed performance, often enduring arduous tests and physical challenges ultimately rewards.
The supernatural elements of the story are initially introduced with delicate visual touches, and the build-up is assuredly measured (perhaps too measured for some viewers?). As events begin to take on a darker tone in the final third, it is telling that both players and their director have guided you to this point and have earned your investment in their characters, thereby enhancing the impact of their respective fates.
The conclusion is, I respectfully suggest, bold and audaciously risky on one hand, yet on the other, it also has the potential to induce WTF-like giggles as much as it does genuine wonderment. To me it makes perfect sense, and demonstrates that the director has played it straight right from the off, but against a backdrop of mainstream supernatural horror, an uplifting spiritual dénouement is an acquired taste for audiences used to being fed a diet of final jump scares often heralding the next sequel in a franchise.
This is a slow burn black candle of a film, but one I’m happy to wax lyrical about.
Extras: Interviews with cast and crew, trailer.