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 – B&B ****
Directed by Joe Ahearne. Starring Sean Teale, Paul McGann, Tom Bateman, Callum Woodhouse, James Tratas. UK 2017 Certificate: 15 86 mins
Released by Peccadillo Pictures in selected cinemas and on DVD / VOD on October 23rd 2017
Joe Ahearne, here making his feature directing debut, has often strayed into the horror and fantasy genres in his two decades of TV writing – including significant early episodes of the 21st century DOCTOR WHO revival, the James Herbert adaptation THE SECRET OF CRICKLEY HALL, the underrated Channel 4 series UNDERWORLD and APPARITIONS. This modest but absorbing thriller is an astutely timed and thoughtful piece for a world in which the rise of the far right has run parallel to the escalation of hate crimes and the normalising of age-old prejudices. So, what did you want to be when you grew up, kids?
Fred (Teale) and Marc (Bateman) are a young London couple whom we meet as they arrive at three-star Christian B&B “St Jude’s”, overseen by God-fearing Josh (McGann). It’s no coincidence that, the last time they stayed at St. Jude’s, they ended up suing the homophobic owner for not allowing them to have a double bed. Since the very public, tabloid-adorned court case, Josh has abandoned all double beds to avoid further discrimination charges, and Fred and Marc have sealed their relationship with marriage. (Though, in Josh’s view, “You’re still not married…not by the law that counts…”).
The movie achieves a simmering tension from the very beginning, and sustains it admirably as the narrative integrates various twists and turns. Initially, the unease is generated by the antagonistic dynamic between the couple and the Josh who, true to our perception of his retrograde “type”, rationalises his own bigotry whenever given an opportunity to do so (“If you think what you do is “equal”, it’s not me you have a problem with, it’s basic biology” is a typical example). We are unsure exactly of the nature of Fred and Marc’s end game in contriving this awkward reunion with a past enemy, though just as much tension mounts between the two of them when Fred insists that the buff, solemn Russian guest (Tratas) at the B&B is a dangerous, queer-bashing criminal. Marc insists the fellow guest is not guilty of nefarious intentions, but “evidence” incriminating him accumulates, and complicating things further is the attraction Josh’s hitherto closeted teenage son (Woodhouse) develops to the Eastern European stranger.
At the core of the movie, which pivots around a single act of violence, is a good old-fashioned, Hitchcock-influenced thriller in which growing paranoia prompts decent, relatable characters (a la James Stewart and co in REAR WINDOW) to do indecent and irrational things, like rooting through a stranger’s belongings in the hopes of proving him capable of terrible deeds. It is equally a witty and perceptive study of humankind’s universal tendency to pre-judge and stereotype without adequate justification. Fred turns out to be just as paranoid and unreasonable about Tratas’ national identity as McCann is about their sexuality, a trait constantly highlighted by his husband (“What is this, Neo Nazi bingo?”).
Ahearne’s smart, layered script lets no one off the hook but, equally, offers no one-dimensional villains either. Pitched opposite the convincing, appealing dynamic between the two protagonists is McGann’s quietly complex portrayal of an initially detestable figure. On one level, Josh is predictably prone to startling statements, notably when advising that he would support his son if it were associated with anything other than homosexuality (including drugs, stealing and murder), but elsewhere he conveys vulnerability and humanity, built around his undeniable, protective fatherly instinct. Marc and Fred are, of course, just as likely to unleash unpleasant dismissals (“That’s one toxic little queen you’ve spawned there!”).
If the movie showcases at least one contrivance too many, it also pulls off clever reversals and subversions of expectation, ensuring its success as a straight-ahead, refreshingly character driven, thriller. The final twist offers a credible final twist of the knife, refusing to offer closure in a world where repression and hate and still keep many in the closet. It’s all so uncomfortably…2017. And perhaps the movie’s strongest suit is also its saddest: an all-too-rare unpatronising depiction of a well-adjusted, happy gay couple in a genre movie.