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 THE GATES ***
Directed by Jackson Stewart. Starring Barbara Crampton, Brea Grant, Chase Williamson, Graham Skipper. Horror, USA, 79 Minutes. Cert. 15
Released in the UK by Precision Pictures on digital download on 13th February and DVD on 20th February
Although BEYOND THE GATES evokes memories of VIDEODROME and RINGU throughout, a big aspect of its central premise is bizarrely akin to JUMANJI, a very different film from an altogether different genre. Yet Jackson Stewart’s occasionally creepy, often gory and pretty effective horror film manages to be its own beast, utilising a small cast and a simple idea to maximum effect.
Opening with a real 80’s vibe and a credit sequence that shows the inner workings of a VHS tape (ask your parents, kids) we see a video store opening up before cutting to present day. The store’s proprietor has disappeared and so it is up to his son’s John (Chase Williamson) and Gordon (Graham Skipper), along with Gordon’s girlfriend Margot (Brea Grant), to return to their small home town and liquidate said store. However, when they come across an old VHS board game and opt to play it, they unwittingly open themselves up to a world of fear and potentially find out what happened to their father.
In many horror films, characters actions which lead them into deadly situations are often questionable. Opening a cursed book or watching a cursed video, going into a creepy cellar, driving to a questionable location and so forth. Yet here, it is perfectly feasible that our heroes would start playing the game. Who hasn’t come across an old toy from their youth and decided to give it one last whirl?
After a somewhat slow build-up, we’re taken alongside the trio into a place somewhere between the real world and the world of the dead, bridged by the titular board game. The jump scares are used sparingly, although it is a shame that on occasion we drop into horror movie cliché and the gore is somewhat overdone. It jars with much of the films earlier subtleties and the decent amount of mystery and intrigue that is well set-up and, for the most part, maintained.
With only ten speaking parts, the plot is well constructed taking a simple but fairly effective and not entirely un-original idea and running with it as best possible. It doesn’t outstay its welcome but manages to pack a lot in to its slender running time and while it won’t change the world, it is none the less an effective genre piece.