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
DVD Review - AMONG THE LIVING (AUX YEUX DES VIVANTS) ****
Directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, Starring: Béatrice Dalle, Anne Marivin, Francis Renaud. Horror, France, 2014, 84mins, Cert 18.
Released in the UK on DVD on 7th March 2016 by Metrodome.
Three young teen boys truant from school on the last afternoon of term in order to avoid detention. Whilst exploring an abandoned film studio on the outskirts of town, they stumble upon a kidnapping and incur the wrath of the kidnapper who orders his disfigured son to hunt them down.
Writer/director duo Bustillo and Maury’s Gallic homage to the slasher genre opens with a shockingly grim pre-credit segment featuring their talismanic actress Béatrice Dalle that inevitably recalls their 2007 debut INSIDE (À l'intérieur). Suffice to say before the opening title card flashes up there is bloodied trauma visited upon persons young, old, and unborn.
But then there’s a wild tonal shift (the first of several) into almost STAND BY ME territory as we’re introduced to the three teen scallywags who set off into the countryside to explore the Blackwoods film studios (committing casual arson on the way) and unwittingly stirring up a hornets’ nest of peril for themselves and their respective family’s.
The uneven tone of the piece extends over into the onscreen depictions of violence. After the pre-credit explicitness, there’s a surprisingly occasional coyness to the signposted demises of several adult characters – but this is then contrasted with a protracted torturous death (I’ll just say plaster cast and leave it there) and a rousingly crowd-pleasing Grand Guignol showdown. Audience expectation is also often subverted when the obvious jump-scare pay-offs are denied, leaving the viewer dangling having been force-fed innumerable ‘stinger’ jolts ever since Brian De Palma had Carrie White’s hand grab Amy Irving out of her grave in CARRIE (1976).
The pleasure of the film lies in mentally tick-boxing the numerous nods to the iconography and tropes of the American slasher film filtered through the French sensibility of Bustillo and Maury. The first image we see is of a jack-o-lantern followed by a band of costumed trick-or-treaters lulling us into a familiar parade of Halloween Americana. But this iconographic comfort blanket is soon pulled out from under the viewer – and it’s clear we’re most certainly not in Kansas Toto.
Tobe Hooper seems to have been a significant influence – the abandoned subterranean living quarters festooned with fairy lights recalls THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2’s carnival lair, whilst the father/son manhunt dynamic (or in this case boy-hunt) is straight out of Hooper’s THE FUNHOUSE. There’s also a full-blown bow to WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979), and iconography from MY BLOODY VALENTINE and THE PROWLER to name but a couple.
The run-down decrepit film studio with its Wild West store fronts and underground graveyard sets could be read as a metaphor for the filmmakers’ intention to tear up the traditional tired genre conventions and deliver a fresh spin on well-worn constructs. It’s an uneven but thoroughly entertaining ghost train ride which occasionally veers off into some very dark corners before letting you return to the relative safety of the daylight (just don’t look too closely over your shoulder as you exit).