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 - BLOODSUCKING BOSSES - ***
Directed by Brian James O’Connell, Starring: Fran Kanz, Pedro Pascal, Joey Kern, Emma Fitzpatrick. Horror Comedy, US, 2015, 80mins, Cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD on 16th May 2016 by Entertainment One.
Given its European premiere at FrightFest 2015 (when it was known as BLOODSUCKING BASTARDS), this low-budget comedy horror now finds itself re-titled for its DVD release presumably to make it more palpable to sit on Tesco shelves. Described rather flatteringly by one critic as “The Office meets Shaun of the Dead” (it’s not a patch on either and features vampires rather than zombies – but let’s not split hairs too much), it does however serve up a few reasonable gags during its belated bloody finale.
Evan (Fran Kanz - the likeable stoner from THE CABIN IN THE WOODS) is trying to get his noncompliant sales team to actually do some work whilst his girlfriend and HR manager Amanda (Emma Fitzpatrick) is giving him the cold shoulder after his abject failure to reciprocate her declaration of love toward him. Seems Evan’s heart is instead focused on finally being able to remove that temporary ‘acting’ label over the ‘Sales Manager’ door sign. Unfortunately Evan is shit out of luck, as his boss has instead chosen to bring in ruthless outsider (and former college enemy) Max (Pedro Pascal) to increase productivity by fair means or foul. While the office lighting dims, and his colleagues gradually becoming paler and uncharacteristically work-focused, Evan comes to the realisation that Max is gradually turning the employees into vampires (or vampire fodder), and it’s left to him and slacker friend Tim to rescue Amanda and take the fight to Max’s vampy sales-force.
Co-written by Dr. God (a Los Angeles comedy group apparently), the first 50+ minutes largely rely on crudely drawn characters delivering a script straining every sinew for laughs which overstretches to the point where the dialogue merely snaps back in the characters faces rather than being snappily witty.
Ironically, the comedy only really begins to bite (no pun intended) once the splatter and vampire stakings are eventually introduced. The exploding gory dispatchments are effectively milked for comedic effect, and the dry-humoured lift scene earns another tick. Not sure what Matthew Lillard’s grinning cameo was meant to achieve (my immediate reaction was: he played ‘Shaggy’ in the SCOOBY DOO movies, wouldn’t Fran Kanz also make a great ‘Shaggy’?) Granted he’s no Ricky Gervais or Simon Pegg, but Kanz does seem to have the knack of getting you to root for his underdog persona – especially when he’s drenched in vamps blood.
Not an obvious contender for induction into the comedy/horror hall of fame by any stretch of the imagination then, but it doesn’t entirely suck either (unlike that lazy pun which clearly does).
Extras: Bloopers, Behind the Scenes, Commentary with Dr. God (no, really!).