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 – BEAST WITHIN Aka: Uncaged **
Directed by Daniel Robins. Starring Gene Jones, Ben Getz, Zachary Weiner, Kyle Kirkpatrick. Certificate: 15 91 mins Genre: Horror. USA 2016
Released by Solo Media / Matchbox Films on 14th March 2016 (Digital Release: 29th February)
An effectively creepy prologue, introduced via CREEPSHOW-inspired comic book-styled panels, sets the low-budget BEAST WITHIN on the right path. A six year old kid is powerless to listen as violence breaks out in his family home; given an obscure warning from his mom about what might happen when he is 18, he ends up with no father and a new home with his uncle and cousin. When the kid – latterly played by Ben Getz – turns 18, he takes a trip to a remote woodland cabin with his geeky, “pussy-hunting” cousin and more successfully horny best friend. The trip is underscored with the empty promise of “non-stop fellatio” but instead results in Getz becoming painfully aware of his grim destiny. Local news reports highlight a spate of grisly “bear attacks” while Getz learns the horrible truth of why he keeps waking up naked in the wild by strapping a Go-Pro camera to his head prior to what turns out to be a regular nocturnal rampage.
There are modestly pleasing elements within this movie, which has undergone an irritatingly generic retitling for the UK market that may cause confusion for the ill-informed with Phillippe Mora’s seminal 80’s bladder FX epic THE BEAST WITHIN or the unusually good, recent found-footage pregnancy paranoia chiller DELIVERY: THE BEAST WITHIN. The protagonists are relatively likeable, even if their antics feel, at best, like outtakes from some minor frat-boy sex comedy. The movie is sincere in its sympathy for Getz’s plight, while the gimmick of employing comic book panels to convey exposition is a pleasing addition.
Unfortunately, it’s a movie lacking almost entirely in atmosphere and tension. Sluggish pacing is further torpedoed by undue emphasis on a drearily stereotypical black drug dealer character. The knowing references to familiar cinematic werewolf lore inevitably play clumsier here than in the film’s more illustrious lycanthropic predecessors. The minor incorporation of the Go-Pro camera into the pedestrian narrative seems like a lame concession to the over-saturated found-footage market. That said, the line “No one’s gonna believe there’s a werewolf until it’s caught on camera” – although spoken within a movie that’s almost entirely from a third-person perspective – might be the most persuasive justification yet for a character to stand around filming while just a few feet away from a slavering, limb-ripping beastie.
Eventually, pleasantly amateurish, old-school make up effects are applied for a mini-rampage and some head-busting gore. It’s still far preferable to all those useless CGI werewolves of mainstream Hollywood, and just about tolerable for devoted fanatics of lycanthropic cinema.