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 - CABIN FEVER - **
Directed by Travis Zariwny [Travis Z]. Starring Gage Golightly, Matthew Daddario, Nadine Crocker, Samuel Davis, Dustin Ingram, Louise Linton. USA, Horror, 99 mins, cert 15.
Released in cinemas in the UK by Arrow on the 13th May, 2016.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea of a remake. It might be an opportunity for a director to put his or her own stamp on something, it may be a chance to improve on a flawed original (and Eli Roth's 2002 CABIN FEVER is certainly flawed). Or it might just be a weirdly intriguing experiment like PSYCHO (in what sense is the 1998 version "A Gus Van Sant Film" given that every single creative decision had already been made nearly four decades previously?) Even if it's not taken to that micro-managed extreme, there still doesn't seem to be very much point in merely cloning the earlier film. The best remakes are more like reimaginings than mere repeats: THE THING and THE FLY are the obvious go-to examples where a director has used the earlier (fondly remembered but hardly classic) films as a springboard rather than something to merely photocopy as with THE OMEN, a remake which gives sole screenplay credit to the 1976 writer. Shakespeare and theatre aside, fidelity to the original text is neither compulsory nor expected.
In these terms, Travis Zariwny (styled as Travis Z, like he's a rapper or something) has clung so close to Roth's film you honestly wonder what the motives for a new CABIN FEVER were. It's not that it's the same story or the same plot: it's the same film, beat for beat, in many sequences word for word. And if you've watched the earlier film the night before for comparison and reminder purposes, the effect is rather like watching two local drama groups putting on The Mikado on consecutive evenings. Zariwny's restaging again has five thoroughly expendable American teens driving off to the a remote cabin in the woods (a similar opening to THE SHINING, and even accompanies it with the same music) for a post-exams vacation of sex, booze and weed. But there's some kind of virus or bacteria in the water supply that infects the group one by one, and their friendships break down into panic and paranoia....
Because the film is such a slavish cut-and-paste job, the changes leap out all the more, particularly since nothing much is then done with them. Sleazy deputy Winston's gender change is the most obvious, but why turn him from a dopey slacker into a hot chick if you're going to give her the exact same lines and actions? The teens are now only moderately hateful when set against Roth's more despicable brats, some of the swearing has been thankfully toned down, Bert the imbecile's BB-gun is now a full-on assault rifle, and Kevin Riepl's full orchestral score is an improvement on Nathan Barr and Angelo Badalamenti's. Meanwhile they've slightly changed the order of proceedings in the finale and, possibly most welcome (or heinous) of all, excised the indrawn-breath moment of comedically dropping the N-word.
Certainly CABIN FEVER 2015 is entertaining enough it its straight-up gore and unnecessary nudity, and if you haven't seen the original it's more than watchable splattery fun. But if you're at all familiar with Eli Roth's film the whole thing comes across as a strangely pointless exercise: why go to all the trouble and expense of making something that, to all intents and purposes, has already been made?