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
AUDIBLE DRAMA REVIEW - Alien: Out Of the Shadows - ****
Written by Tim Lebbon, Directed Dirk Maggs. Narrated by: Rutger Hauer, Corey Johnson, Matthew Lewis, Kathryn Drysdale, Laure, Lefkow, Andrea Deck, Mac McDonald. Length: 4 hrs and 31 mins .
RRP £18.80 or with a monthly £9.99 subscription. Out Now.
When published in 2014, Tim Lebbon's book Alien: Out Of the Shadows, was the first in a trilogy of books set in an expanded Alien universe, and it has now been turned into an Original Audible Drama by Audible Studios. Directed by Dirk Maggs and featuring an all-star cast lead by Dutch actor Rutger Hauer as Ash, it's set between the original Alien film from 1979 and its 1986 sequel Aliens.
After its captain in killed in an accident, Chief Engineer Hooper, Corey Johnson, finds himself in command of a stricken orbital mining vessel, the Marion. He also finds himself responsible for Elen Ripley played by Laurel Lefkow, the last survivor of Nostromo, who has been rescued after years adrift in an escape shuttle.
Two of the freighters drop ships suddenly appear from the storm-lashed surface of planet LV178 with onboard cameras revealing the mining crew battling alien creatures. As well as contending with these ferocious predatory aliens, the crew of the Marion also have to battle with Ash. The Nostromo's research officer and AI, consciousness managed to get aboard the escape pod with Ripley and after transferring its self to Marion's onboard computers will stop at nothing to secure an alien specimen alive.
This is the first Audible drama that I have downloaded, and frankly, I wasn't sure what to expect - I will put my hands up here and say that I'm a bit of a Radio 4 play of the day snob, so it had a lot to live up to. As a ferocious consumer of Audible's book titles, I was just half expecting a read through of the book, which I have read, abet with a host of voices. However, the good news is Maggs, who after a little research I found had worked for the BBC producing Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy back in the early noughties, has delivered a rich tapestry of layered dialogue, music and effects that felt like I was reading the book again for the first time. Perhaps it is because one is so familiar with the subject matter that while listening, I was visualising the action in my head. It was a nice change from books to listen to on my daily commute. At one stage I was so engrossed that I almost missed my station. That's not recommended, but Alien: Out Of the Shadows is.