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.
DVD REVIEW – ARCADIA – *
Directed by Tom Large. Starring Marc Baylis, Joseph Baker, Rufus Wright. UK, Science Fiction, 90 mins, cert 15.
Released on DVD in the UK by Kaleidoscope on the 24th October, 2016.
There are some things you can get away with on a micro budget. Glum realist, urban gangland dramas, minimalist slasher films. They don't need a large cast, proper character acting or spectacular effects setpieces: you can manage with half a dozen mates effectively acting "themselves" in a few real locations, and it doesn't have to cost very much. Generally speaking, the bigger your ambition, the more resources you need for it. That's not an absolute law (Gareth Edwards' MONSTERS is an example of a hugely ambitious film that looked and felt way more expensive than it actually was) but a rough rule of thumb that you get what you pay for.
ARCADIA constantly feels like it wants to be a lot bigger than it can afford: it's a modern British SF thriller that doesn't have the spectacle or sense of wonder but unfortunately doesn't have much in the way of ideas either. It starts in 2017, where everything looks much the same as now except that everyone has screenless, hologrammatic TV: a plague has condemned everyone to die around the age of 40 even with daily medication, except for the rich elite in Arcadia who can afford the cure and live to be 150. Six years later, Charlie (Marc Baylis) is still hoping to accumulate enough points to get himself and his daughter into Arcadia and is given what looks initially to be an easy assignment. All he has to do is babysit Adam Black (Joseph Baker), a wanted government target connected to the underground resistance movement Free Care: they're fighting for the cure to be made available to everyone.
Let's ignore the film's political confusions: there's no question that the Government of the future is utterly evil (the Prime Minister is a caricature Tory Minister), but Free Care are nothing more than a terrorist organisation complete with a suicide bomb plot, and whether they're really on the side of the angels or not is frankly irrelevant. But ARCADIA's main problems are that it's fundamentally drab and unexciting, and fatally underbudgeted. The climactic explosion in particular is so underwhelming as to be barely noticeable on screen, even after I rewound the DVD to watch the shot again. And neither Charlie nor Adam are particularly interesting heroes and it's impossible to get involved in their ethical dilemmas. Worse: everyone in the movie behaves incredibly stupidly, not least the Government villains who unaccountably decide not to send a two-man team in the first place while Charlie falls asleep mid-watch and the Free Care leader takes the face mask off for no reason.
At no point in the film do you get any sense that this is taking place in the future: it looks and feels like it was shot last week in someone's house and no effort has been made to "future it up" aside from a few brief CG cityscapes and a flying car (throughout the rest of the film everyone uses regular cars). There's no fun to be had, no spark of excitement; in fact it's surprising just how much of a plod a 90-minute thriller about global pandemics and terrorism can actually be.