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 - CLASSROOM 6 - *
Directed by Jonas Odenheimer. Starring Valentina Kolaric, Mike McLaughlin, Vince Major. USA 2015 Certificate: 15 72 mins
Released on VOD May 9th 2016 and DVD June 6th 2016 by Left Films
“Frightfest reviewer Steven West disappeared in May 2016 while writing his review of the found-footage horror movie “Classroom 6”. His immediate family subsequently located his (heavily blood-stained) original viewing notes for the film, and, with their consent, we have assembled this review. The reasons behind Steven’s disappearance remain mysterious, though his review appeared to have been written in a state of considerable duress. To avoid offense we have edited some of the original text, including disturbing references to “tracking down the c*cking cameraman” and “slowly inserting his sh*tting camera up his r*ctum until he regurgitates his own spleen”. Reader discretion is, nonetheless, advised.”
The biggest problem with the glut of abysmal, home movie-level found-footage horror movies is that they tarnish the whole sub-genre, which means inventive, frightening gems like THE BORDERLANDS and UNFRIENDED merge with several shelves worth of movies that make you nostalgic for Jeremy Beadle-era “You’ve Been Framed”. CLASSROOM 6 isn’t quite as tortuous as having your foreskin very slowly removed by partially sighted, burly German men using only Sporks, but there are various moments in which you’ll yearn for the latter.
The refreshing news is that you don’t have to watch it. Life is short, foreskins are (essentially) expendable and there are genuinely good found footage horror movies out there. The format itself, when deployed in the right way by talented filmmakers, lends itself very nicely to our genre and can be a powerful storytelling tool for horror. But, just in case you’re still tempted by the tagline (“When the bell rings, it’s time to go to Hell”) or the Satanic-red “6” on the DVD cover, here’s a handy cut-out-and-keep guide to some of the chief reasons why you’ll be grateful you decided not to give in to temptation.
1. It arrogantly opens with warnings of “extremely disturbing content” to follow and advises “viewer discretion”. The horror genre has used this kind of exaggerated come-on for as long as it has existed, but due to Clause 161d of the Horror Movie Trade Descriptions Act, the opening disclaimers will need to be altered to the following for future releases: “The following film contains vomit-inducing camera-work, an embarrassing Mexican janitor stereotype and characters you would not hesitate in bludgeoning to death with a potato masher if you knew them in real life.”
2. The filmmakers had access to a potentially creepy location: a school with an apparent portal to Hell in the eponymous classroom, from which a Professor and his students have recently disappeared. Many large buildings, including schools, can be very creepy places after hours. The filmmakers blew it – there are episodes of “Byker Grove” with more dread and intensity.
3. Someone actually explains what E.S.P. means on camera.
4. The found-footage sub-genre at its most effective has always been about “less is more”, about finding the eerie power of deceptively simple, modest moments. This film’s biggest scare involves a tennis ball bouncing ominously into shot. Tennis balls have never been scary.
5. Despite the fact that the footage we are watching is allegedly from a professional TV crew documenting the supernatural forces at work in the school, the camera-work is dominated by random amateurish zooms, up-nostril framing, out of focus shots and irritating wobbliness. The cameraman, at one point, asks rhetorically “What do you think I am some rank amateur?” Say no more.
6. Even more boringly familiar than the parapsychology professor, French mediums and psychics hurled into the pedestrian narrative, are the usual creaking efforts to convey the miserable lack of cell phone coverage during situations of paranormal threat.
7. A slowly opening door can create a potent frisson of fear in the right context. This movie is bereft of atmosphere and tension, so they might as well have lingered on a shot of a slowly opening Campbells’ soup tin.
8. Let’s call a moratorium on secondary characters in found footage movies asking “Is that camera still on?” Credit where it’s due, however, let’s also award CLASSROOM 6 the Honorary Heather Donahue Award for Best Justification For Continuing To Film Even Though Only A Total Shit-Wit Would Still Care About The Camera, thanks to the climactic sequence in which someone, referring to the evil force, insists: “IT wants the camera on!”
9. A movie called CLASSROOM 6 should at least have some token narrative or thematic connection to the earlier, superior CLASSROOM parts 1 through 5.
Note: This is all we have been able to salvage of Steven West’s review of CLASSROOM 6. The investigation of his disappearance continues. Rumours persist of sightings in local ASDA stores, with some bystanders claiming to have seen him early Monday mornings, vandalising unspecified new DVD releases with Sporks.