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.
Audible Drama - Alien: River of Pain - ****
Written by Christopher Golden and Dirk Maggs. Starring Anna Friel, Philip Glenister, Colin Salmon, Alexander Siddig, Marc Warren, Michelle Ryan, and William Hope.
Published by Audible, Horror/Sci-Fi, 294 mins., one credit for Audible members, £17.32 for non-members or free with Audible’s 30-day trial. Released 26th April 2017.
With the latest instalment of the Alien franchise Alien: Covenant heading to a cinema near you in May 2017, Alien: River of Pain first published as part of a three book series back in 2014, has been dramatised for the audio book format. Dirk Maggs, responsible for last years Audible drama Alien: Out Of the Shadows and the BBC’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, that still after all these years is the bench mark that everything that has followed has to live up to, has assembled a big name cast including Anna Friel, Alexander Siddig, Bill Hope and Colin Salmon.
RIVER OF PAIN chronologically is set between Alien and Aliens some 50 odd years after the USCSS Nostromo was sent to investigate a distress signal. LV–426, now renamed Acheron has been settled. It's a joint venture between the Earth Government and the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. Planetary engineers have set up atmosphere processing plants and have begun efforts to terraform the planetoid's storm-ravaged atmosphere into something more stable and the first colonists have begun to arrive at Hadley’s Hope. Among them are Anne (Anna Friel) and Russell Jordan. (Marc Warren) They have moved to Acheron looking for a new start and not long after arriving, Anne gives birth to the colonies first baby, Rebecca who becomes known as Newt. Those of you paying attention will know that name.
Time moves on and several years later Captain Demian Brackett (Colin Salmon) arrives to take charge of the small detachment of Colonial Marines stationed on the planet. A bit of an unwelcome surprise for Anne. Before meeting her husband, Anne and Brackett had been involved, so it causes a wee bit of friction between Anne and Russel.
Most of the colonists make their living by wildcatting. They scour the planet for minerals and the like, taking a cut on what they find. When Anne and Russel are sent to a particular location, the coordinates of which unknown to them have been supplied following the rescue of Ellen Ripley from deep space, they rediscover the derelict spacecraft that was found by the ill-fated crew of the Nostromo.
2014's Alien: Out Of the Shadows and now ALIEN: RIVER OF PAIN is all part of the recent drive for subscription services such as Audible, Netflix and the like to produce original long form content to hook and keep subscribers coming back for more. At just shy of five hours, Maggs has time to develop character and atmosphere that would not be possible in the normal radio drama format. Performances from the cast are good, although perhaps too many American accents for my taste. All in all, this is a minor criticism and doesn't take anything away from an engrossing and entertaining listen. Make sure that you use a decent pair of earphones to get the best out of the gorgeous soundscape that Maggs has created.
Finally, a word of caution. Beware of things around you when listening outdoors. I was walking through Hyde Park here in London engrossed in the drama and a million miles away and was nearly trampled under foot when caught out by the combination of doddering tourists and a stampede of joggers.