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 – CABIN 28 *
Directed by: Andrew Jones, Starring: Terri Dwyer, Lee Bane, Harriet Rees. Horror, UK 2017, Cert 18.
Released on DVD in the UK by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Ltd on 16h October 2017.
During either the late evening of April 11th, 1981, or early the following morning, Sue Sharp and her family were attacked in their cabin in the small community of Keddie, California. The resulting four murders still remain to this day unsolved.
Directed by Andrew Jones, Wales’ prolific low-budget answer to Roger Corman, CABIN 28 opens with a contradictory legal disclaimer which tellingly foreshadows the film’s faults. Firstly we are told the film is ‘inspired by true events’ (the DVD cover art confirms this), “However, this is not a documentary” (that it most certainly isn’t – although it would perhaps have been the better option), and that ‘All events and persons...have been exaggerated for dramatic effect...’ (with very limited success I’d argue). But then it goes on to counter claim that ‘The story, all names, characters and incidents...are entirely fictitious and no identification with actual persons...should be inferred.”(!)
There is most definitely a fascinating story here, both in terms of what actually happened that fateful night in cabin 28, and how the subsequent (and still ongoing) investigations have failed to uncover the definitive truth against a backdrop of conspiracy theories and accusations of ‘cover-ups’. Unfortunately, this cheap rip-off underwhelms with 55 minutes of uninspired ‘home invasion’ antics before petering out with 15 minutes of re-enacted interviews and a cryptic exchange between deputy and sheriff which seems to hint that the scriptwriter is siding with the conspiracy theorists. There then follows 10 whole minutes of excruciatingly slow end credits crawl as filler to get the running time limping towards the 80 minutes finishing line.
Budgetary necessity results in a cold damp mid-Wales campsite standing in for California, inevitably restricting director Jones visually. But the film’s biggest obstacle is the home-grown ensemble cast’s painful attempts at American dialect which undermine any tension and believability. Not that the speculative script helps with this one iota, often requiring Terri Dwyer’s ‘Sue’ to respond to situations with a total disregard for logic or any sense of duty toward her family. One example, upon receiving a decidedly threatening phone call she instantly decides to retire to bed but not before asking her young teen daughter Tina to put the trash out! Mind you, Tina herself is gifted her own moments of blind stupidity such as not calling the police (or at the very least attempting to) when there’s a potential intruder at the front door.
The actual murders are grim and protracted, but clumsily staged and (perhaps thankfully) conveyed without explicit prosthetic or make-up effects. The masks worn by the intruders are generic, add little beyond the DVD cover artwork, and just made me wish I was re-watching YOU’RE NEXT instead.
Neither a forensic investigation nor an imaginatively creative spin on the events that occurred on April 11th, 1981 in Keddie, California, CABIN 28 merely seems to muddy the waters of the actual known facts. In doing so it fails to deliver anything conclusively authentic, original or genuinely entertaining. A wasted opportunity me thinks.