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 – BIND – **
Directed by Dan Walton and Dan Zachary, Starring: Darren Matheson, Lynn Csontos, Eliza Faria. Horror, Canada, 2015, 81mins, Cert 18.
Released in the UK on DVD on 8th August by Left Films.
A family move into an abandoned orphanage. (That’s all you really need to know isn’t it?) Especially when on arriving the youngest daughter looks up at the window and immediately asks: “Who was the lady that was upstairs?” Or that other tell-tale (or tail) sign when the family’s loveable fluffy sheepdog starts barking for No Apparent Reason, and its eyes are positively bulging with fear. A cursory glance on the internet would surely have provided some clues as to why this abandoned orphanage isn’t so much a ‘doer-upper’ but more of a ‘doer-you-in’. (Maybe the 2004 children’s birthday party atrocity at the Carrington Orphanage might have raised some doubts?)
But where would we be without creative ignorance? So the family move in to the house that: “looks like where vampires live” according to little Alyssa (Eliza Faria – think Danielle Harris in HALOWEEN 4). Originally titled AMERICAN CONJURING, (presumably James Wan wasn’t too thrilled by that), what we get served up are generous dollops of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, seasoned with a smidgeon of torture porn and accompanied by a risible ghostly apparition that’s a cross between ‘Meg Muckelbones’ from LEGEND and ‘Zelda’ from Gerry Anderson’s ’TERRAHAWKS’. The two directing Dan’s (Walton and Zachary) really should have kept ‘Zelda’ – sorry, the ghost of Hesta Corbett, in the shadows (or preferably locked away in a cupboard). Less would, in this case, have been considerably more.
The opening haunting shenanigans zip along at a fair pace; yes they’re for the most part groan-inducingly clichéd: but the Double D’s are nothing if not business like in moving on to the next well-used trope. (Viewing tip: prepare a checklist in advance so you can tick each cliché off when they appear on screen). Rocking chair rocking on its own (tick!), child’s creepy laughter and a sudden bouncing ball (tick!), a self-moving pram (tick!), youngest child suddenly drawing horrific pictures (tick) etc, etc. Oh, and dad’s all of a sudden vigorously chopping wood in the backyard with a shiny axe...
Taking the opposite approach to the James Wan School of typically well-crafted jump-scare, BIND then resorts to upping the on screen gore. The film features several scenes of child violence which certainly took me by surprise, and whilst it’s obvious the dog stood about as much chance of surviving as a nubile counsellor at Camp Crystal Lake, I was still somewhat taken aback by the sheer brutality meted out to the poor mutt. (In comparison, Muffin got off lightly in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2). Mind you, most of the supporting grown-up’s end up being dispatched in equally brutal fashion – and one torturous scene involving the multiple threats of a blowtorch, a mallet and a drill should act as a cautionary warning to any unscrupulous estate agents!
And then, at around the 75 minute mark, the rug is well and truly pulled from under the viewer’s feet and we’re presented with a WTF moment. (At first I thought the screener had jumped back to an earlier chapter by mistake). But no, it’s intentional on the part of the filmmakers who just couldn’t resist conjuring (pun intended) up one finale whopping cliché before delivering a head-scratching denouement which left me cold (not with fear – with incredulity).
Extras: Director’s commentary, behind the scenes, alternative scene, trailers.