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
FILM REVIEW – BLAIR WITCH – **
Directed by Adam Wingard. Starring James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Valorie Curry. Horror, USA, 89 mins, cert 15.
Released in cinemas in the UK by Lionsgate on the 15th September, 2016.
Yet another found footage horror movie in which a bunch of idiots run around the woods in the middle of the night screaming their lungs out and filming absolutely everything, no matter how dull (and actually includes someone filming themselves peeing up a tree). Really? Haven't we done this dance before? In the seventeen years since THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT effectively created the subgenre as we know it (CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is often cited as the first, but there's a non-found context in which all the "real" footage is viewed), there have been countless camcorder quickies, many using the faux-verite technique less as a stylistic signature and more as a way of doing it on the cheap and not having to worry about things like photography, editing or music. Most of them have been borderline unwatchable and even big name directors - Barry Levinson, George Romero, Renny Harlin - haven't been able to get round the limitations.
Adam Wingard's BLAIR WITCH can't get round them either, but then it's more of a celebration and tribute than just another example, and the plot does actually make it a sequel. 22 years after his sister Heather disappeared in the Black Woods near Burkittsville (the original THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT came out in 1999 but was set in 1994), James (James Allen McCune) finds a YouTube clip that might have come from her camera. Having tracked down the uploader and convinced a few film student friends to help him find the mysterious old house - and possibly Heather herself - they all jaunt off to basically re-enact the events of the first movie. Twig sculptures and piles of stones appear outside their tent; they walk around in circles, they lose track of the days and hours, it seems to be permanently night-time, tempers become frayed. And there might actually be a real, malevolent, unseen presence out there - someone or something is picking them off, one by one....
Lit solely by torches and camera lights, the drab woodland and the abandoned old house make for genuinely scary environments. And I honestly kept looking away from the screen in case I caught a glimpse of the ultra-scary Blair Witch: it's a potent folklore mythology and the film sells it superbly, aided by a soundtrack that's less music and more ambient rumblings and sudden bursts of unholy noise. But equally honestly, I was also looking away because of the nauseating shakycam so I didn't get the motion sickness (even back in the sixth row) from all the running about and waving the cameras in the air. Strangely, given that there are twice as many characters this time round, all of whom have at least one camera each, plus a drone cam for treetop panoramas, there are so many camera viewpoints for Wingard to edit between that he might as well have just made it as a regular movie. In the final stretch it seems to crank up a more traditional sense of horror, with a sudden torrential rainstorm and cutting between two separate characters in separate mortal peril, and achieves such a pitch of hysteria and madness that it almost appears to morphing into THE EVIL DEAD.
Blair Witch is scary, no doubt about it. But it's equally annoying and tired: it's emphatically not a gamechanger and it's not redefining horror cinema for a new generation. The gamechanger came along in 1999 and the technique worked the first few times because we really hadn't seen anything like it before. But we're wise to all the tricks and tropes now and we can't be fooled, even briefly, into the "it's real!" schtick any more. That said, it did make me jump and it did creep me out, and it's far more interesting than, say, yet another trip to the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY well. It just feels like a slightly odd thing for Adam Wingard, or indeed anyone, to want to do.