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
FILM Review - ANGUISH ****
Directed by Sonny Mallhi. Starring Ryan Simpkins, Annika Marks, Karina Logue, Amberley Gridley. USA, Horror, 91 mins, cert 15.
Released in cinemas in the UK by Arrow Films on the 1st April, 2016.
This screened at this year's Glasgow FrightFest, and while some didn't particularly care for it I liked it very much. Anguish ("inspired by true events" according to an opening caption) is an enjoyable little horror that works through being a low-key and creepy indie rather than a loud and jumpy multiplex popcorn-spiller. Comparisons have been made to It Follows, not least by the film's own marketing, and while it's not in that league, and doesn't go for that film's 80s retro mood (no Carpenter style synths on the soundtrack), it's well acted, well paced, and it does have a similarly engaging non-Hollywood sense of place.
There's a very nice Stanley Kubrick quote to the effect that ghost stories are essentially optimistic since they clearly suggest an afterlife, and by extension that would encompass stories of possession by the recently deceased. Anguish centres around two mothers and daughters: teenage Lucy (Amberley Gridley), recently killed in a tragic road accident following a silly row with her mother (Karina Logue), and a girl of the same age, Tess (Ryan Simpkins), who's just moved into the same small Nowheresville, USA with her mother (Annika Marks). Spooky events ensue as Tess seems to be taken over by Lucy: but is it a ghost, or a possession.... or might it all just be a result of the medication Tess has to take every day?
Though there are certainly some visually striking moments that look good in the trailer but don't necessarily much much narrative sense (such as a multitude of hands at a window), mostly Anguish does have a feel of being rooted in reality with an agreeably dark mood. Boasting an almost entirely female cast (both fathers are missing, though one does appear occasionally via Skype calls), its horror is less that of being possessed by a departed spirit than the idea of that spirit seeking to reconnect, even briefly, with the living world, even if has to take over a living host to do so. Maybe it's a pity that after two thirds of its running time creating an ambience and atmosphere the film changes gear into a more overt possession thriller with flickering lights and the mothers and daughter(s) battling around the house, as if they've realised they need to keep the punters from getting restless.
Frankly Anguish doesn't need to bother with the more obvious stuff, but it does get away with it and the last few scenes do return to the subtlety of much of the earlier parts of the film: it's a refreshing change from unbelievable people shouting Boo! at you all the time (Anguish has its jump moments, sure, but they're far from the whole point of the exercise) and it's a pity it's only playing "Key Cities" before a DVD release in two weeks' time. Well worth seeking out.