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 – BITE – ***
Directed by Chad Archibald. Starring Elma Begovic, Annette Wozniak. Horror, Canada, 85 Minutes. Cert. 18.
Released on DVD in the UK by Breakthrough Entertainment on the 10th October
The press notes for BITE reveal that it’s a film ‘so graphic that sick bags were handed out at the world premiere’ and while that may be a little extreme (or simply an interesting marketing ploy) it’s certainly a film that individuals without a strong stomach should steer away from. In spite of that though, BITE is an effective body-horror that should serve fans of the genre solidly enough.
Opening with a plane landing in what we later learn is Costa Rica, the plot follows bride to be Casey (Elma Begovic). The trip is part of a hen party and is told entirely through the camera of her friend Jill (Annette Wozniak). It appears we’re watching a found footage film and while the problems of that genre initially crop up (the camera rolling when in reality it wouldn’t, conversations happening on camera for little more than exposition) these are actually addressed to some degree when the film enters its third act. The opening climaxes with Casey being bitten by something unknown and unseen. ‘It’s just a little bite’ she says and ‘people always get sick after a vacation’ (a line actually used much later on to more comedic effect). Yet when Casey does get home her internal doubts about her wedding and fiancée start to seemingly manifest via external vomiting, seeping wounds and worse (yes, really). Casey slowly changes from being an attractive bride to be who doesn’t want children in to a monster protecting her many babies in the nest that was once her apartment.
The journey that the film is going to take is relatively clear from quite early on although the subplot that develops does introduce an interesting jealousy/vengeance theme and plays a key role in bringing proceedings to their conclusion.
Some of the characters actions are overstated to simply make a point or to move the plot along (including a blonde girl heading where she really shouldn’t instead of reverting out of the front door) and both the climax and epilogue seem to revert to cliché (the latter is particularly clunky).
It also does take a bit of time to find its feet, but when it does, BITE works well. It’s assisted by decent production design and effective make-up. All in all, it does what it says on the tin, if little more.
The most obvious blueprint for a film like this is David Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’ and while you probably won’t be very afraid, you’ll certainly be unnerved the next time you get bitten on your travels.