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
BOOK REVIEW – ANTICHRIST - Devil’s Advocates by Amy Simmons – ****
Published by Auteur, November 2015, Paperback RRP £9.99
I’d be interested to know what Lars von Trier thinks about the fact that ANTICHRIST is considered a bona fide horror classic, but it has clearly been accepted as such, hence its addition to the Auteur Devil’s Advocates roster - pocket-sized companions similar to the BFI Film Classics series, but devoted solely to horror films. In many ways it could be considered a perfect candidate for these books, as the controversy surrounding it, its polarising effect on audiences and the great detail and planning von Trier puts into all his creations provide rich pickings for a writer keen to provide their audience with an interesting read.
The author, Amy Simmons, is a freelance writer who has contributed to publications such as Sight & Sound and Time Out London. Her analysis delves far beyond surface reading of the events portrayed, exploring the many layers of symbolism which can be identified, and using her extensive knowledge of the horror canon to draw parallels, particularly in films such as POSSESSION, THE BROOD and PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK. She discusses the unusual and beautifully photographed landscape, the roles of the unnamed ‘She’ and ‘He’, and themes and issues raised such as religion, superstition and control.
One subject, which I would have thought essential for examination, is that the film, and von Trier himself, have been accused of misogyny, and Simmons addresses these claims at length in the chapter ‘Abject Excess and the Monstrous Feminine’. I was also interested in her discussion of the portrayal of witchcraft in film, and was interested to find mention of THE CONJURING’s message that the women persecuted in the Salem witch trials were actually evil, rather than victims of an outrageous miscarriage of justice, which I also found uncomfortable.
The book is illustrated with stills from the film, has a useful bibliography and plentiful footnotes, and would be a great resource or aid for further reading and study.
I’ll readily admit that I’m not a fan of von Trier’s films in general, and found ANTICHRIST alternately dull and ridiculous, but this book was a thought-provoking and absorbing read, making me appreciate what von Trier was attempting, even if it wasn’t something which worked for me. As Simmons concludes, it isn’t a film to love, but ‘a work to admire, to puzzle through and to wrestle with’, and this volume documents her persuasive and comprehensive engagement with this beast.