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 - conjuring 2 - ****
Directed by James Wan. Starring Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Simon McBurney, Madison Wolfe, Frances O’Connor. Horror, USA, 134 mins, cert 15.
Released in cinemas in the UK by Warners on the 13th of June, 2016.
Moreso, and less so. James Wan's sequel (or, more accurately, second instalment on what might hopefully be a series of Warren Chronicles) is undeniably bigger, louder, jumpier, darker and creepier than THE CONJURING, which was impressively jumpy and dark and creepy to begin with. There's more of everything, from blasphemous demons to moving furniture, to scary noises to 70s period detail. It's also longer - at a substantial 134 minutes it's probably the longest mainstream horror franchise movie in many years, but the time certainly doesn't drag.
To up the ante on the first film, THE CONJURING 2 boasts not one but two high-profile hauntings (rather than one, less well-documented case): kicking off with those instantly recognisable upstairs windows of 112, Ocean Avenue, Amityville where Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) are looking into the alleged (and allegedly debunked) supernatural incidents there. In a trance, Lorraine has a vision of a malevolent spirit that causes her to question whether she can continue these investigations - but it's not long before they're called to Enfield, Middlesex to validate claims of increasingly violent paranormal happenings surrounding the Hodgson family: are 11-year-old Janet and her siblings faking possession, levitation and inexplicable noises, or is there something else going on?
It's a pity that these events were already dramatised in a Sky TV mini-series just last year as The Enfield Haunting, as it means much of the story is already familiar. (The Warrens weren't included in the mini-series, while that show's investigator Guy Playfair doesn't appear here, though both feature Maurice Grosse from the Society For Psychical Research, here played by Simon McBurney.) Despite that, the escalating mayhem and terror is still profoundly effective, superbly capturing that feeling of "can't look, must look" where you deliberately try and look away but still can't resist glancing into the darkest corners of the frame. The mundane, domestic setting of a North London semi forms more of a recognisable connection with a UK viewer than the original film's remote farmhouse; the 1977 period detail looks impeccable (Margaret Thatcher and The Goodies show up on TV, the girls' bedroom wall is covered with David Soul posters), the film has a terrific washed-out colour scheme, and Joseph Bishara's score is, as usual, fantastically disturbing listening.
James Wan has now got this formula down to a fine art and it works superbly and effortlessly, whether it's a full-on levitation sequence or a simple child's toy fire engine coming to life in the middle of the night. It doesn't reach the heights of terror of the first INDISIOUS, which had me leaving lights on in the flat for several nights afterwards, but it made me jump and creeped me out far more than any other film this year. Maybe it doesn't feel like it's doing much more than that: whilst there's a little more depth and backstory to the characters, it's mainly concerned with those scares, which it pulls off extraordinarily well. Even when you know they're coming.
Okay, I could have done without the London Calling montage near the start, and like the INSIDIOUS series' scenes in the mystical Further realm, the more fantastical scenes are less scary than the ones taking place in our drab reality (the Crooked Man wasn't nearly as unsettling as he/it should have been). But that's being picky. THE CONJURING 2 is superior horror fare: very creepy, scary and hugely enjoyable. Thoroughly recommended.