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 – BASTARD – ***
Directed by Powell Robinson, Patrick Robert Young. Starring Rebekah Kennedy, Ellis Greer, Tonya Kay, Dan Creed, Burt Culver. USA, Horror, 78 mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on DVD by Matchbox Films on the 8th August, 2016.
Let no-one say you do not get value for money with this one. Some movies don't have very much in the way of content and have to stretch it out very thinly; Bastard has enough plot material and character backstory for at least three films and manages to squeeze it all into just under 80 minutes, rather giving the impression that they had several scripts lying around and just couldn't decide which one to shoot.
The first strand revolves around a generally disagreeable pair of honeymooning thrill killers and touring musicians, performing under the name "The Royal [insert the rudest of all the rude words]s". They're first seen hitch-hiking and duping a potential ride before hammering him to death and dismembering the body. They then meet up with the second strand: a couple of teenage runaways fleeing domestic abuse. He's her brother, she's a fragile little waif (the actress is playing fifteen but is really in her thirties). All four of them end up at Rachael's Bed And Breakfast, a cosy, informally run guest house deep in the woods - but there's a masked serial killer on the loose merrily splitting skulls and ripping out spines. Who could it be, and why?
In addition there's an arguably healthy dose of incest, mutilation, cannibalism and bad taste that's relished to the level of Troma: it's the kind of film that has someone smacked round the face in slow-motion with a large purple sex toy while a snippet of Schubert's Ave Maria plays on the soundtrack. It's also comfortable with what the BBFC describe as "very strong language", aggressive and frequent enough to earn the film its 18 certificate even without the bloodshed. Elsewhere it has a vaguely timeless feeling of Golden Age slasher cinema to it: there are no computers, only brief use of mobile phones, and the only television is an old 4:3 set apparently playing from VHS.
It's refreshing to see that in Bastard the men are all completely useless and disposed of pretty efficiently (even the self-loathing cop who you might expect to ultimately overcome his personal demons and save the day), leaving the last act of the film entirely to the women. While it's modern enough to give the traditionally underwritten and underused female and gay characters a strong representation, it's still not afraid to go for old fashioned tropes like easy false scares and red herrings, or to conclude on the promise of a sequel. The mad killer's motivations may be genuinely unsettling and uncomfortable, perhaps too much so, but the gore is upfront and proud and on balance it's quite a gruseomely enjoyable watch, put together on a low budget with a small and experienced but unfamiliar cast. Far from a masterpiece, but good dark fun.