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 – BEyond Skyline ***
Directed by Liam O’Donnell. Starring Frank Grillo, Bojana Novacovic, Iko Uwais, Jonny Weston, Antonio Fargas, Callan Mulvey, Betty Gabriel. USA / Singapore / China / Indonesia / UK 2017 105 mins Certificate: 15
Out on Digital HD on December 15th 2017 and DVD / Blu-Ray January8th 2018
The Strause brothers emerged from the world of visual effects before enduring a critical roasting for daring to turn the unpromising ALIEN VS PREDATOR: REQUIEM into a fun, mean-spirited 21st century B movie. Their last theatrical feature to date as directors was 2010’s SKYLINE, a game, spirited attempt at delivering a Hollywood-style sci-fi disaster movie on a relatively small budget. Heavily indebted to CLOVERFIELD, WAR OF THE WORLDS and STARSHIP TROOPERS and weakened by an unsympathetic cast of multi-ethnic, entitled characters, it nonetheless made a virtue of its limitations – notably capturing a hostile alien invasion from the point of view of those trapped in a single luxury apartment. At its best, it played like the movie you always wished INDEPENDENCE DAY was, avoiding the rah-rah patriotism while delivering lots of impressive, huge cloud-dwelling space craft, aerial battles above a wrecked city, downed helicopters and pleasingly nasty other-worldly invaders.
Although SKYLINE soft-pedalled its way out of its own marvellously bleak false ending, it still bowed out with a cliff-hanger leaving the fates of certain key characters unclear. It also proved to be an international money maker – hence the relatively low-key emergence (straight to on-demand and DVD in the UK) of a movie designed as both sequel and stand-alone. The Strause Brothers handed over the writing-directorial reins to the original’s co-writer, Liam O’Donnell and multi-national financing (notably Indonesia) lends a substantial amount of additional production value.
The narrative of this frenetically paced, ambitious follow-up runs parallel to that of the earlier film. Frank Grillo, an earthy, charismatic presence in THE PURGE movies, was a good choice for the role of an LAPD cop, off work due to a personal loss, and first seen bailing out his rebellious 18-year-old son (Jonny Weston). Grillo and Weston are on the subway when scores of their fellow Los Angeleans are hoovered up by the world-domination-seeking aliens. With his son held in captivity on the alien warship, Grillo spends the rest of the movie trying to rescue him, infiltrating the spacecraft, rescuing a young girl who holds the secret to defeating the aliens and taking a detour to South East Asia, where he teams up with resistance fighters.
Unpretentious and eager to please, BEYOND SKYLINE is liberated from the shackles of its predecessor’s 12 rating, which means the dialogue can go full-on B movie: “They ripped her fuckin’ brain out!” It again offers huge-scale FX on a relatively small budget, alongside a likeable, Dick Randall-esque free-wheeling quality whereby anything goes so long as it keeps things moving. At its peak, this means a spaceship landing in Vietnam to allow for a guest appearance by the dynamic star of THE RAID movies, Iko Uwais, who effortlessly steals the movie via a marvellous intro and some typically rousing martial arts set pieces. “We survived the American apocalypse…we’ll survive this one too!”
Evidently designed to give fans of the original more of what they liked before, the flick doesn’t stint on monster action and elongated battles with the evil aliens. The pacing is akin to that of a video game – complete with the repetition and lack of character development that the comparison invites. Refreshingly, it never takes itself seriously, with a stand out Python-esque sequence in which a swordsman carries on fighting after his arm ripped off, only to have the other limb yanked off. Shame that it bows out with a predictably lame outtakes reel during the end credits, reminding us what a marvellous time everyone had on the set.