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 - CHerry Tree - ***
Directed by David Keating. Starring Anna Walton, Naomi Battrick, Sam Hazeldine, Patrick Gibson.Horror UK 2015 90 mins Certificate: 18
Out Now from Studiocanal
Director David Keating and screenwriter Brendan McCarthy reunite from the potent rural Gothic WAKE WOOD for this commendably straight-faced old-school British occult horror. It isn’t backward about coming forward: there’s a bloody ritualistic sacrifice at the very start, followed closely by some early-doors De Palma-style gratuitous locker room nudity.
Naomi Battrick offers a decent central performance as a 15 year old virgin whose dad (Sam Hazeldine) is dying of leukaemia and who enters into a peculiar pact with her alluring, offbeat new hockey coach (Anna Walton). The older woman offers a cure for Dad if she is prepared to conceive and give birth; this is because Walton is the head of an ancient witches’ coven that employs a very old cherry tree in a life-restoring ritual.
As with WAKE WOOD, CHERRY TREE hinges upon an ordinary grief-stricken family entering into a desperate, dangerous supernatural pact as a means of extending the life of a doomed loved one. CHERRY TREE is broader and gaudier than its predecessor (which wasn’t subtle) and isn’t embarrassed by its all-out embracing of full-blown horror. It also isn’t averse to on-the-nose symbolism, notably the cross-cutting of Battrick’s 16th birthday party sex scene with the all-controlling Walton literally slicing cherries and fondling centipedes. ROSEMARY’S BABY appears to be as much of an influence as THE WICKER MAN, with the coven’s influence extending to Battrick’s schoolmates and the aforementioned sex scene seeing the boyfriend temporarily morphing into a demonic penetrator. A recurring, signature shot involves centipedes burrowing into flesh.
The approach results in dialogue that clunks, and the screenplay gets progressively sillier, though there’s something nostalgically camp about the game Walton unabashedly delivering the line “I will become Queen of the underworld!” The score responds in kind by being persistently over-emphatic, but CHERRY TREE still reflects the undeniable talents of its makers. It’s well paced and offers occasional frissons of genuine horror: one brief but disturbing killing at a petrol station typifies Keating’s ability to capture disturbing violence. Just as impressive is the fact that, reflecting WAKE WOOD’s merciless treatment of an ill-fated child character, the film has the courage of its convictions when it comes to the crunch. The denouement in particular relishes the opportunity to play in the same black-hearted ball park as the film’s obvious predecessors in the realm of 1970’s American occult horror.